A simple plot points to high art

The Bookshop is an adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel of that name, originally published in 1978 but looking back to an era more than 20 years earlier — that of post-war Britain, with the consciousness of austerity and sense of social stratification that that evokes. It is set in the 1950s, and, apart from the sets and the costumes and so on, we know this because a key plot point has to do with Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel Lolita, which came out in Britain in 1955.

The story concerns a young widow, Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), who moves to a small seaside town and there, in a rackety old building, opens a bookshop. She does this because she loves reading (cue flashbacks to her being read to by her late husband) and she believes in the social benefits of books. To get her shop going, however, she has to face the disapproval of some in the village, especially a local grandee, but she’s supported to some degree by an older man who is also a bibliophile.

The audience is given the plot early in the movie — within the first four minutes. A voiceover, intoning what are presumably lines from Fitzgerald’s novel, tell us all about Florence, her passion for reading and her determination to open and run her bookshop. This forecasts the obstacles she’s up against, so the resistance she encounters shouldn’t be a surprise to viewers, though perhaps the sheer nastiness of the anti-bookshop machinations will be.

If that forecasting, in the opening minutes, puts off viewers who are spoiler-averse and more attuned to the breathless plotting of Game of Thrones, it would be a pity. Director Isabel Coixet (who is Spanish) may be working within the confines of what looks like a tweedy, British, backward-looking, heritage-industry genre, but she is able to upset and trouble the expectations that come with it, and the movie has an underlying tragic feel that gives it a darker tint.

The presence of Lolita in the film, and the legal issues to do with its distribution, are a kind of frame here. Because it deals with a paedophile, and tells its story in richly scintillating language, it was controversial in its day — and is now, perhaps more so. Wikipedia’s confident assertion that some critics think it’s the greatest novel of the 20th century is surely questionable. In the movie, it functions as a kind of guide to the difficulties of dealing with “high art” in a hidebound culture that would prefer middlebrow security (with aristocratic supervision).

At any rate, it is through Lolita that Florence bonds with Edmund Brundish, a reclusive old man who is literary enough to be asked his advice by her on the quality of the book. Brundish is played by Bill Nighy, who puts his leathery face to good use in generating both gravitas and sympathy. He does, though, tend to speak in a halting monotone that makes one feel the narrative is about to grind to a halt.

Earlier in the movie, we had seen Brundish receiving a book in the post, and unwrapping it (they sent books in brown paper with a piece of string around it in those days) so that we can see it is Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451.

He even says aloud, “What kind of book is this?” which indicates to the viewer that we should pay attention, even if we already know what kind of book it is. Fahrenheit 451 came out in 1953, and it has to do with a future society in which books are banned; 451 degrees Fahrenheit, famously, is the temperature at which books burn.

A point is obviously being made about a conservative society’s receptivity to literature, and about the resistance to anything that undermines a particular social order, particularly who gets to define “high art” and how and where it should be deployed.

I’m not sure that The Bookshop is able to resolve such questions, but at least it raises them in the course of its quietly absorbing tale.

Author Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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