Based on a 1978 novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, “The Bookshop” tells the quiet, unhurried and gently bittersweet tale of a widow (Emily Mortimer) whose dream is to open a bookstore. That Florence Green has decided to do so in a small English town where most don’t like to read — and in a building that the local grande dame (Patricia Clarkson) has set her mind on acquiring for a different purpose — lends the film some much-needed friction. It isn’t much, nor is the fact that Florence has decided to offer Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial “Lolita” for sale.
The story is set in the mid-1950s, and that racy title induces tiny paroxysms of scandal into the sleepy village where the film takes place. But the subtext of shock value and the implication that there might be book-banning in the works are muted, at best, and almost don’t materialize on-screen. There is, however, a undeniable foreshadowing of the printed word’s demise.
Mostly, “The Bookshop” is a pretext to watch three great actors do their thing: Mortimer, as the film’s mousy but surprisingly formidable heroine; Clarkson, as her smiling adversary, Violet Gamart; and Bill Nighy, as the town’s reclusive loner — and its only voracious reader — Mr. Brundish, who comes to Florence’s aid and advocacy.
Alas, his chivalry may be too little and too late.
That mood of lost opportunity — manifesting itself in the whiff of a possible romance between the 60-something Brundish and two-decades-younger Florence — is a suggestion that blows in and then is gone, like a half-imagined fragrance. It’s a feeling that pervades “The Bookshop” and gives it flavor.
Written and directed by Isabel Coixet, who also worked with Clarkson in the lovely “Learning to Drive,” “The Bookshop” is a story that is less dependent on incident than on mood and character. Some of the most interesting scenes involve Florence’s shop assistant, Christine (Honor Kneafsey), a young girl who has a precocious tongue and spirit, and Milo North (James Lance), a charming but disreputable BBC producer who lives in the town and who is not to be trusted.
As easy as it is to spot Milo’s sleaziness, it’s harder to know exactly what to make of “The Bookshop.” It isn’t really a love story (except if you count the love of reading). And it isn’t really a story about a place or time where books are truly in jeopardy, despite the prominent appearance of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” (which augurs the film’s climax in an unexpected way).
It’s a strange film: small, sad (without being tragic) and yet sweet without being syrupy. Narrated by Julie Christie — from the point of view of a third-person observer whose identity is only revealed at the very end — “The Bookshop” doesn’t lend itself to easy explication. Like the best novels, meaning is to be savored, not summarized.
Perhaps Brundish puts the paradox of this film best when Florence asks him to advise her on whether it’s really a wise idea to try to get her customers to buy “Lolita.” “They won’t understand it,” he warns her. “But that’s all for the best. Understanding makes the mind lazy.”
PG. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains some mature thematic elements, strong language and brief smoking. 113 minutes.