On a rainy, windy Sunday when a squally cold front was blowing in from the west, we jumped in the car and went to see the movie, The Bookshop , at the cinema.
In many ways The Bookshop a timeless story, both nostalgic and contemporary based on the novel by Penelope Fitzgerald.
The scenery is beautiful (apparently filmed in Ireland) and is meant to depict rural England and a seaside town called Hardborough in Suffolk in the 1950s, and the attention to period detail is faultless.
Spoiler Alert – Review and Commentary
Florence, a war widow, comes to Hardborough with a dream of opening a book shop. We get the feeling that through this endeavour she seeks to keep her deceased husband’s memories alive, as they had originally met in a book shop.
This is a slow movie, and unless you look for the underlying messages you’ll be disappointed. It’s not a gentle, feel good movie about a bookshop with a storyline which keeps you guessing or has you on the edge of your seat.
What is interesting as the story unfolds is how it mirrors both our modern day to day world and the online world too.
I thought the story was something of a parallel, reflecting life in the 2000’s, as it is also a story about bullying, and could equally be applied to cyber bullying.
The restrained and melancholy cinematography portrays much of what we’ve come to believe is stereotypically British but this comfort zone is soon threaded with an agitating undercurrent that slips in quietly, via veiled conservative words, spoken at an aristocratic cocktail party in a grand old house.
As a story The Bookshop can essentially be compared to someone arriving in a new environment or organisation, a person who doesn’t know the lay of the land. They decide on a path to follow with good intentions, not meaning to upset anyone.
However, due to no fault of their own they come into contact with one of the power-brokers of the organisation and they are given an ultimatum – ostensibly a steel fist in a velvet gloved demand to back off or else. The threat is that if they don’t comply then there will be a systematic and pathological process to crush and destroy them.
In the corporate world and perhaps online too this is done first of all by demonising the person, and then by leveraging rules and regulations (even to the extent of creating new rules and regulations that they transpose). Through this demonisation they manipulate the pawns of society to do their bidding and then crush their opponent.
It’s a look at our capitalist and corporate worlds and the story of The Bookshop is as relevant now as the time it was set.
Just as Jane Austen novels remind us that rural villages can be habited by petty and spiteful people, The Bookshop also shines a light on some of the best and worst of our human traits.
The Bookshop Storyline
Florence intends to buy an old rundown property called The Old House which she wants to turn into the town’s first book shop.
She encounters the calculating and tight lipped Violet Gamart at a stuffy, stuck-up aristocratic party where she is immediately out of place, and she learns that Violet has her eye on the property, and wants to turn it into an arts centre ostensibly for no other reason than out of a sense of power.
With friends in high places we are almost immediately aware that Violet will stop at nothing to get her way.
Violet says to Florence with syrupy solicitude and a smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes, “Why don’t you think it over?” which actually translates as, “If you oppose me then I shall destroy your life.”
We also meet Milo North, a bounder with Brylcreamed hair, who as a character blows with the wind. He’s the sort of man who will smile to your face, and launch a dagger to your back. An empty vessel, an apathetic man full of spite and ideas of self preservation – he is one of the pawns used to incur Florence’s ultimate downfall.
Then we meet the mysterious widow, Mr Brundish who has all but given up on the human race and lives as a recluse in a rambling old mansion.
Local gossip, much like Chinese whispers, has claimed his story in completely the wrong way, and through one of only two restrained meetings between Florence and Mr Brundish we discover something of his background, as well as the reason he emerges from solitude – not for a final flirtation but because he says : “You make me believe once more in things I’d long forgotten,” and one of them we learn is courage.
You get the feeling that in the past he’s had some power in the system but has taken a step back from it repulsed by human nature, and it makes you think that bad things happen when good men stand back and do nothing. However, he’s motivated to do something to support our heroine although ultimately it’s not enough to help her cause.
The person who actively supports Florence is a feisty child who hasn’t been corrupted by the unjust system. A young girl called Christine, who helps Florence at the shop simply sees good in good people but who has also developed a strong sense of what injustice looks like.
I sat down to watch this movie with little expectation of gaining much more than an insight into a time past when we were children. I hoped perhaps that I would recognise and relish in the scenery that was once familiar to me, while enjoying a gentle bookish story.
I didn’t expect a subversive parable for modern day life delivered via sensitive acting and nostalgic movie sets.
It was a film strewn with ideas to ponder, and an ending which I didn’t see coming.
What did you think?
Have you seen (or read) The Bookshop? What did you think?
Have you seen any other movies by the director Isabel Coixet?
Have you seen any other movies with Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy or Patricia Clarkson starring in them?
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