Penelope Fitzgerald wrote stories about the quietly devastating lives of seemingly insignificant people. ‘The Bookshop’ is the story of meek widow Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) who, in 1959, opens a store in a sleepy Suffolk seaside town. Reclusive widower Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy) is among the few who greet the newcomer warmly, but others, including well-connected busybody Mrs Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), do everything in their power to see her fail – especially when she decides to order a large quantity of a certain controversial novel by Vladimir Nabokov.
‘Elegy’ director Isabel Coixet’s draws fine performances from an enticing cast, nailing the buttoned-down bleakness of the period and aching ennui of the setting. But while she wisely dispenses with the book’s supernatural elements, her adaptation is overly faithful. Fitzgerald’s prose is even quoted in voiceover.
This slavish fidelity leaves acres of screen time devoted to insignificant scenes, while Florence’s conflict with Mrs Gamart never reaches its full potential. Nighy, too, is largely wasted – surely an offence punishable under English statute. Thankfully, Mortimer’s tender, sympathetic performance mitigates these shortcomings, even if the film itself is something of a dramatic damp squib.