Have you ever started reading a book (maybe attracted by an interesting synopsis, some positive reviews, or a cool dust jacket) and quickly realised it wasn’t your jam?
Take my experience with ‘The Descent’ by Jeff Long - it started out great! Lots of backstory and suspense-building. It's about a freaky subterranean humanoid species (called Hadals) that begin coming to the surface of the Earth and kidnapping humans for slave labour. A group of people, including two escapees, travel underground trying to find and stop them. Then the author begins to humanize the Hadals, giving reasons for their behaviour and depth to their characters. I was really digging it until, around the last 90 pages or so, the author went back to them just being mindlessly evil - I got the impression that he just wanted the book to be over. 'The Descent ' is one of the few novels that I purchased, read once and then generously gifted to a friend.
What do evil underground-dwelling mutants have to do with the new Spanish, British and German co-produced drama film, ‘The Bookshop’? Unfortunately, nothing! However, this multi-award winning film (it won three major Goya Awards: Best Film, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay) is another example of something that initially appears interesting but ultimately disappoints in its execution.
WATCH: 'THE BOOKSHOP'
‘The Bookshop’, based on the novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, is directed and written by the Spanish director Isabel Coixet (‘My Life Without Me’). Coixet's work as a director is striking for being, as The New York Times describes her, “unclassifiable.” Some of her work is niche, such as her award-winning 2011 documentary ‘Listening to the Judge’, a long interview with Spain’s most famous judge Baltasar Garzón, shot in black and white. Others are popular tales of love and loss, such as the 2014 comedy drama ‘Learning to Drive’ about a Manhattan writer, played by Patricia Clarkson, taking driving lessons from a Sikh instructor, Ben Kingsley. Depending on the film, she shoots in English or Spanish. Coixet’s trademark is her filmmaking technique, which was derived from her background in advertising, where visuals, colour, and composition are carefully constructed (she works as the camera operator on all of her films).
The film, as in the novel, is set mainly in 1959, and follows Florence Green (Emily Mortimer, ‘The Party’), a middle-aged widow, who decides to open a bookshop in the small coastal town of Hardborough, Suffolk. The location chosen is the Old House, an abandoned, damp house said to be haunted by ghosts. Introducing the town to some of the best literature of the time, including Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’ and Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’, among others, the bookshop slowly but surely starts to turn a profit. Mr. Brundish (Bill Nighy, ‘The Limehouse Golem’, ‘Their Finest’), the mysterious, Boo Radley-esque inhabitant of the house at the top of the hill, is Florence's best client, but she is opposed by the influential and ambitious Mrs Gamart (Patricia Clarkson, ‘Maze Runner: The Death Cure’), who intends to set up an arts centre in the Old House. There’s also the suave Milo North (James Lance) and the cheeky but genuine Christine (Honor Kneafsey, ‘Crooked House’), Mrs Green's young helper in the bookshop, who is oblivious to Milo's fake charm.
What do evil underground-dwelling mutants have to do with ‘The Bookshop’? Unfortunately, nothing! However, this film is also an example of something that initially appears interesting but ultimately disappoints in its execution.
Through books, Florence brings a whole world of feeling and fresh ideas to her small town, and her story reveals the tactful tyranny behind the English idyll, the gossip and good manners that stifle change and keep age-old social structures standing. The film was shot in Portaferry, County Down, Northern Ireland, and in Barcelona, Spain - frequent Coixet-collaborator Jean-Claude Larrieu’s cinematography is suitably grey and grim.
However, as far as characterisation goes, this film is a slim novella rather than a chunky tome. Every character feels paper-thin, like the aristocratic jerk, the cranky-but-nice hermit, the savvy youngster and so on. Despite a talented cast (this is the third collaboration between Patricia Clarkson and Isabel Coixet, after ‘Elegy’ and ‘Learning to Drive’, and reunites Emily Mortimer and Clarkson after ‘The Party’), there is also an annoying mish-mash of too-crisp accents, particularly Clarkson’s chunky affected British tones. One of the better scenes in ‘The Bookshop’ is when Mortimer and Nighy meet in person for the first time and sit there awkwardly, saying almost nothing, and eating cake.
There are a lot of ways to describe the overall tone of this film, like cloying, twee or simply very, very British - there’s plenty of tea, cardigans, paraffin heaters, and long walks across the scenery. Ultimately, it’s a dull combination of all three.
Life is short. Definitely not long enough to finish reading disappointing books. At some point you need to throw in the towel and move on because there are countless wonderful books out there (some of them about subterranean mutants); so why waste your time? Same goes for movies – there are plenty of better films to go and see in cinemas rather than setting foot in ‘The Bookshop’.