There are movies made to challenge you, and then there are movies like "The Bookshop." Sweet, sad, and oh-so-British, the film tells the story of Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), who after the death of her husband decides she's going to open a bookshop in her small seaside fishing village of Hardborough, England. Reading was of great importance to the couple, and she wishes the store to be a tribute to their relationship.
Florence faces some resistance, but eventually purchases an abandoned house within the town limits and sets up shop. But her actions put her in the path of wealthy busybody Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), who's had her eye on the same property with the intention of turning it into an arts center. A woman clearly used to getting her way, Violet's played by Clarkson with an abundance of tight-lipped smiles and a way of gazing out windows with a look that tells you she's currently scheming.
The people of the town aren't much for book reading and thus not much help, but Florence finds an ally in the form of curmudgeonly widower Mr. Brundish (Bill Nighy). He's a reclusive man who the residents love to gossip about, but he and Florence strike up a friendly correspondence as she selects books she thinks he might enjoy, and has them parceled up and brought to his home. Gradually the free-spirited Florence shakes up the provincial minds of the town, exposing them to a bit of culture by way of Ray Bradbury and Vladimir Nabokov.
Based on a 1978 novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, "The Bookshop" is by all accounts a faithful adaptation by writer-director Isabel Coixet ("Learning to Drive"), though the film can feel understated to a fault. Taking its story's stiff upper lip British repression to heart, it takes forever for its central conflict to come to a head. This gives us time to question Florence's decision-making when it comes to running her business: for example, ordering 250 copies of "Lolita," which is quite a lot considering there don't appear to be nearly 250 people in the entire village, or any surrounding areas for that matter.
Coixet relies on excessive narration to move the predictable story forward, creating the sense that she doesn't entirely know how to dramatize Florence's predicament through visual storytelling. But at least the voiceover is delivered in the soothing, dulcet tones of Julie Christie, so that's something. Lead by a sensitive performance from Mortimer, the talented, appealing cast do their best playing characters that cry out for more depth.
I'm all for messages about how reading is good, and the importance of thinking for oneself, but while "The Bookshop" is well-made and acted, it's also safe and sort of boring. It's the type of movie that feels made for watching on a rainy day, with a hot cup of tea in hand, and a tattered afghan over your lap so you can doze off in the middle and wake up without having lost the thread of the plot. But the ultimate experience is vaguely dissatisfying, like if that comfy blanket was also the one that smells faintly musty no matter how many times you wash it. Go see it if you're in the mood for something cozy, or better yet, save it for a rainy day.