A book, as Florence Green, hero of The Bookshop, would agree, is a magical thing. It opens a door to another realm filled with love and longing, ideas and inspiration, adventures and maybe an antediluvian horror or two. A book possesses the power to almost whisk you away from the world entirely.
Or so Florence might hope. An unattached war widow, she has the grave misfortune to wash ashore in the ostensibly sleepy town of Hardborough, England with the dream of opening a little bookstore of her very own. With some difficulty, she manages to purchase the “old house” – a reverent fixture in the town – and spruce it up with loving care. Soon enough, and with the help of a few mousy-haired, bespectacled local scouts, the Old House Bookshop is bristling with good old English hardwood shelves and Florence’s carefully curated collection of books, including Nabokov’s Lolita and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
Only, poor Florence’s stubborn acquisition of the old house has ruffled the feathers of Hardborough’s lofty elite: Violet Gamart and her simpering cohort, including an oily banker, the languorous do-nothing Milo, and even a dutiful Member of Parliament. In short order, these agents of the aristocracy are arrayed against Florence, seeking to crush her dream beneath their well-turned heels.
Emily Mortimer is superb as the unerringly polite Florence Green. In her face you can read every thought flitting through her head – uncertain smiles shift into puzzled concern, only to be replaced by stormy indignation moments later. She maintains that curious English reserve and yet her emotions always cut through, sharp and clear. Bill Nighy, too, is striking as Edmund Brundish, a Lady Haversham-esque recluse who spends his retirement buried in books and rallies to Florence’s cause. He, too, bubbles over with strong emotions that rarely escape, like steam from a lid.
While the story itself is a fairly brutal and well-trodden triumph of Capitalism and Local Concerns over the Small Independent Business-Owner, The Bookshop holds a certain appeal to the eye. The camerawork is intriguing, rich with strangely intimate close-ups of characters and the beautiful (if Britishly miserable) countryside. The characters are straight out of Boy’s Own Guide to 1960’s England but still manage to carve out a slice of unique personality here and there.
But most of all, The Bookshop feels realistic enough for our modern world, fifty years down the track. When you mess with the rich and the powerful, they can grind you down on a whim. So what can you do? Take refuge in a book, I suppose.