If you enjoy watching Emily Mortimer at work, as I do, you’ll get something out of The Bookshop, but the film itself is an odd duck. Adapted from a novel by Penelope Fitzgerald by writer-director Isabel Coixet, it lays out its premise and likely outcome in its opening moments, through the words of an unidentified narrator. In other words, it introduces its setting (a small coastal village in East Angelia), time period (the late 1950s), and dramatic conflict, even its resolution. All that’s left is for the outline to be fleshed out as the story follows its preordained path to an unhappy ending.
Mortimer plays a young widow who decides that her destiny is to open a bookstore and be surrounded by books. They take you on journeys and allow you to live many lives; what’s more, unlike people, they never let you down. But her plans run afoul of the community’s steely grande dame (Patricia Clarkson), who had other ideas for the town’s long-vacant “old house.” Her agenda from that point forward is to upset Mortimer’s plans and destroy the people who surround her, by any means necessary. Bill Nighy is the ideal actor to play the town’s notorious recluse, a widower who like Mortimer experiences life through reading.
A film that makes itself so predictable can only overcome this obstacle through atmosphere, performance, and abundance of charm or style. The Bookshop has some of those qualities but not enough, sorry to say. It’s slow as molasses and can’t overcome a story of fate that’s been laid out for us in the very first scene.