There’s a scene in “The Bookshop” in which a main character bursts into tears over Ray Bradbury’s novel “Dandelion Wine.”
Even if I didn’t like the rest of “The Bookshop,” I would have to give it credit for this moment. Everyone should burst into tears over “Dandelion Wine,” and sometimes even at the memory of “Dandelion Wine.”
As it happens, there are other things to admire about this mixed bag of a movie, which was the opening night film at the Seattle International Film Festival in May. “The Bookshop,” based on a novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, has a few issues with casting and credibility, but these are outweighed by its appreciation for good things. You know — like “Dandelion Wine.”
The year is 1959, in a small town on the east coast of England. A determined widow named Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) uses her inheritance to open a little bookstore in a musty old building.
At first, the movie comes on like an inspirational tale about a woman defying the odds. Not only must Florence clean up the site and manage a plucky 10-year-old assistant (Honor Kneafsey), she’s got enemies in town who’d like to use the building for an arts center.
For a while, it’s nice to see Florence succeed against the odds. But this is no fairy tale, and in reality bad guys frequently win. The arts center is being championed by the town’s evil grand dame (Patricia Clarkson, recently of “Sharp Objects”), the kind of bully who values winning above everything else.
Florence’s ally is a book-loving recluse (Bill Nighy). Can bookworms actually triumph in a movie? Let’s just say “The Bookshop” doesn’t indulge many fantasies.
Director Isabel Coixet has done strong work in the past, especially with “My Life Without Me” and “Elegy.” Those movies were made for grown-up audiences, a rarity. Same here, but the world of “The Bookshop” sometimes feels artificial.
It’s at its best in small moments, including a few long dialogue sequences in which entire lives are laid bare. There’s also a scene of people holding hands on a beach that feels monumental, despite the simplicity of the gesture.
The movie might be weightier with a different actress at its center—Emily Mortimer (late of “The Party” and the autobiographical TV show “Doll & Em”) has a lot of easy likability, but maybe that works against the character here.
So the movie’s emotional center shifts to an unlikely place: the fussy book-lover, and Bill Nighy, who wonderfully suggests the iron will within a shy man. This gaunt, mischievous actor has enjoyed a marvelous run from “Love Actually” to the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” films, and he’s never been nominated for an Oscar. Academy voters, please take note.
“The Bookshop” (2½ stars)
In an English seacoast town in 1959, a widow (Emily Mortimer) opens a small bookstore, much to the annoyance of the town elders. Isabel Coixet’s film is not the inspirational story it might appear, which is to its credit, although the movie has an odd, alien quality. Good supporting work by Bill Nighy and Patricia Clarkson helps.
Rating: PG, for subject matter
Showing: SIFF Cinema Uptown