An explanation: this review is about a book – but it’s also about a film. It’s a film review – but the film is an adaptation of the book – and it mentions the book too. OK?
The film is The Bookshop, currently doing the cinema rounds, and based on the book of the same name by Penelope Fitzgerald. The original was published in 1978 and shortlisted for the Booker – and I simply can’t understand why I hadn’t heard of it until now.
Penelope Fitzgerald is undergoing something of a renaissance, so I imagine quite a few of us are discovering her for the first time – although I don’t doubt there are many other – and perhaps older – readers who’ll say ‘Huh!’ because they have heard of her and read much of her work. And, no doubt, love her books.
But her story – like that of writers such as Mary Wesley, who didn’t publish until later in life – will prove an inspiration to debut authors and writers over the age of 50.
That’s because, although born in 1916, Ms Fitzgerald wasn’t published until she was in her sixties.
And so there are those who could be forgiven for thinking that The Bookshop, set in a fictional east coast town in the late 1950s, would be a gentle, slow-paced – and possibly twee – look at community life.
Certainly the film initially soft focusses its curious way into our preconceptions. The widow, Mrs Florence Green (played by Emily Mortimer) arrives to open a bookshop in an old, dilapidated house in the centre of town.
But as hints are voiced about the unsuitability of her proposal, an unspoken concern grows and the mood darkens.
The Bookshop works by observing the placing of the ‘outsider’ in a small community, shown in sharp focus as Florence arrives at a soiree in her serviceable, red dress, while all the other women are in light silk and satin cocktail frocks.
The townspeople don’t like change and they’re used to everything being done in the same way – the way of the less than benevolent bank manager, solicitor and retired general. And just when we think it’s male power politics being played here by useless, small-minded men, we meet the bitter and brittle Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), she of the cold eye and steely ambition.
The one man with any redeeming qualities is Edmund Brandish (Bill Nighy), but even he is ‘othered’, having chosen to distance himself from the townsfolk and their dreadful gossiping suggestions as to what happened to his missing wife.
And watching over the town and observing its people with wise-beyond-her-years eyes is the adorable Christine (Honor Kneafsey) who proves that reading and loving books can open up an unexpected future.
The film was certainly a surprising delight – and now I must read the book.