While settling in to her new bookshop in the fictional seaside town of Hardborough, England in the late 1950s, Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) pulls a book from one of the many boxes scattered across the room. Carefully thumbing through the tome, she then pauses to smell its pages, as if this object in her hands contains some ineffable essence that transcends words. Elsewhere in Isabel Coixet’s The Bookshop, Florence is glimpsed almost lovingly brushing her hands along the spines of the books on her shelves. These moments are meant to reveal the young widow’s ostensibly undying passion for books, but this zeal is barely perceptible elsewhere in the film, which is mannered and apathetic to rather self-contradicting ends.
Not knowing what to make of Lolita after she finishes reading it, Florence meekly requests that her sole steady customer, the wealthy and reclusive Edmund Brundish (Billy Nighy), read the book in order to give her his opinion on both its contents and whether or not she should sell it at her shop. Of course, Florence’s ultimate decision to flood her display window with copies of Vladimir Nabakov’s novel causes a stir in the quiet and conservative Hardborough. But rather than emphasize the role of Florence’s store in sparking the intellectual curiosity of the town’s residents, The Bookshop mires itself in a banal real estate turf war whose weaponry takes the form of passive-aggressive letters and discreet shade-throwing tactics.
Unbeknownst to Florence, the building she purchased for her bookshop is of historical significance. And despite the fact that The Old House, as the building is called, had been abandoned for several years before she moved in, the meddlesome and influential Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) makes it her mission to shut down Florence’s store. But not unlike Florence’s passion for books, the rationale for Violet’s venture to take over the shop remains muddled throughout, and though Violet proclaims that The Old House should be transformed into a center for the arts for the good of the town, that reason is clearly presented as a smokescreen to hide, well, what exactly?
One gets only the vaguest sense that Violet finds modern literature distasteful and potentially dangerous, as well as dislikes Florence for not kowtowing to her demands. And if the dispute between the two women has no urgency it’s because their animosity toward one another is perpetually buried beneath a glaze of politesse. Indeed, The Bookshop is steadfast in avoiding drama at all costs. It’s in everything from Florence being so curiously staid and unfazed across the film to Clarkson and Nighy’s voices rarely rising above a whisper. And Coixet’s intermittent visual flourishes—from picturesque views of the sea, to woozy slow-motion and out-of-focus shots of Florence relishing in the tactility of novels as she’s putting them on shelves or wrapping them up for customers—do little to amplify the stakes of her low-key narrative.