Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 03, 2018 9:29 am 
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A sad little charmer

If horror movies are stories where evil wins, The Bookshop is a horror story. It also has an old, creaky house (in the source novel it has a poltergeist) and a woman who is essentially a witch. (She has the power to kill and destroy.) It may deceive you at first. The setting is Hardborough, a little English town in East Anglia in the 1950's, coordinates for cuteness, charm, and humor. Remember the great English comedies, the Ealing ones, the ones with Alec Guinness? Now forget them. This is a slow, relentless tale that takes us from charm and warmth to heroic struggle to abject defeat to survival after the fact. But it leaves one feeling droopy. This Catalan director-screenwriter, Isabel Colixet, hasn't the grasp of dry English farce that's needed to provide a healing edge, and the star is just a tad too bland.

The Bookshop is adapted from a novel by Penelope Fitzgerald that Coixet found a long time ago and deeply connected with. The protagonist, Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), a middle-aged widow who starts a bookshop that others - particularly the ruthless, powerful, and rich Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) - don't want her to start, is a woman of admirable courage. If you're a glass-half-full person you will say Florence wins, because her spirit remains indomitable.

On the face of it, Emily Mortimer is ideal for this role. There is something a little unsexy about Emily, though. She is the woman Jonathan Rhys Meyers marries for convenience in Match Point when he's much more interested in Scarlett Johansson. She's a noble striver, full of grace, as "Newsroom's" long-suffering MacKenzie McHale. She is so impeccable, she can operate smoothly on all these different levels. Her aim is very humble as Mrs Green. Just a bookshop, in this quiet little town. Emily Mortimer, daughter of John Mortimer, CBE, barrister, dramatist, screenwriter, author, projects a woman who's intelligent, who reads and thinks. The story calls for her character to be inexperienced in the ways of the world. But an actress with more evident spirit and pluck and would have made us better able to relate to this woman who's brave even in total defeat.

Patricia Clarkson must be having fun being a posh bitch. If she didn't get to play Glenn Close's role in Dangerous Liaisons, at least she got Violet Gamart. Even Coixet admits her upper class English accent isn't that good, but her tense artificiality works for the ceremonial nastiness of her role.

Mrs Green's project nonetheless seems like a great one. (If it didn't, this movie would be unwatchable.) A bookstore will be nice for the town, This is a time when bookstores - independent ones - are alive a well and people are reading. We will hear about Ray Bradbury and Vladimir Nabokov, who are doing their best work. How can such an enterprise be nipped in the bud? Just watch.

The thing is that quiet little English towns, so this story tells us, are hell-holes where class is power. Violet Gamart controls this one, and she is evil. Mrs Green is too nice to say that, or at first even to see it. It's said by her one important ally, the reclusive but rich Edmund Brundish (played by Bill Nighy, whose performance is the best in the film). I confess to a distaste toward Patricia Clarkson. But that's fine, because Violet Gamart is meant to be distasteful. Her character is dry, waxy, overdressed, pale. She's a witch with dark red lipstick smeared on.

Mrs Green's naivete shows in the big opening sequence when she goes to a reception given by Violet, in an inappropriate "red" ("but it's a very deep maroon") dress, expecting to be welcomed and encouraged for her coming addition to the town's offerings. Instead she learns that Violet wants the old house she has acquired for her bookshop for an "arts center" that she will of course control. Coixet manages this crowd scene somewhat chaotically - it should have been wittier and more energetic.

Mrs Green does not meet with Violet Gamart 's favor and that's an end to it. But it will take most of the movie to actually get there (and when it comes it's a bit vague and rushed). At the reception, she also meets the inexplicably horrible Milo North (James Lance, perfectly distasteful and smarmy), and he will be an agent of her destruction, though he seems just to be flirting. He is an agent of evil, a toiler in the Devil's workshop who delivers his goods to remote locations, like a bookshop. Lance's performance is memorable too, even though it has no emotional depth like Bill Nighy's.

Along the way, there is some good stuff, even if it feels muted and dim because we know it can't last. The bookshop is a success. Mrs Green gets a schoolgirl, Christine (Honor Kneafsey) to help her in the shop after class for 12/6 a week. Christine "doesn't like to read books" but she likes working in the shop. She has energy and spunk and Mrs Green grows very fond of her. Then, there's the long-distance relationship that develops between Edmund Brundish and Mrs Green and soon becomes a direct one. She sends him books (because he's a recluse). Bill Nighy performs at first in noble solitude, speaking the texts of his letters to Mrs Green sitting in his house. When he reads Fahrenheit 451, he directs her to forget biographies of noble people and novels about wicked people and send nothing but the works of Ray Bradbury. This is a charming bookish storyline.

It starts to turn serious when Mrs Green orders 200 copies of Lolita, and Violet gets a wedge to start threatening legal action. The public is crowding the High Street rubbernecking Lolita displayed in the shop window. As the bookshop and Mrs Green's life with it and her friendship with Edmund Brundish get better, Violet's forces close in on her and move to destroy her enterprise, aided by a new law her cooperative nephew in Parliament has helped put through.

The story, and the film, blends the low-keyed and charming with the ugly and relentless. It's a grim picture of small towns in England in 1959. But it's also a heroic struggle in which the good do not lose - completely, and the running of bookshops is an art and a business that is passed on to the younger generation. At least in this novel - which was published in 1978. Writing about it for the New York Times in 1993, Valentine Cunningham called it Penelope Fitzgerald's "sad 'Rake's Progress,' a tragicomedy of good will and literate courage thwarted, a pained and smarting story of the old exterminating angels of the English class system in full and damaging flight." That's about right for the movie too. I don't know what it means to people today, or how much the Catalan director, despite her good English, really understands it (or if an American like me does). It seems she has lost a lot of the novel's social detail, and so of its farce and warmth, in her adaptation. But there it is - ready to see and be depressed by, and not be sorry times have changed.

The Bookshop, 113 mins., debuted at that center of English culture, Valladolid, 17 Oct. 2017; also at Berlin, Göteborg and Dublin. In Madrid, it won the top Goya award. UK theatrical release 29 Jun. 2018, US, 24 Aug. 2018. Metascore 62%.

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