It’s Emily Mortimer against the world in “The Bookshop,” a film about a woman who opens a bookstore in an English town that seems to irrationally hate books.
The intention is to cast Mortimer’s late 1950s English entrepreneur as plucky, but the story comes off as alternately charming and tedious. Perhaps the problem is the too-close dedication to the 1978 novel by Penelope Fitzgerald. Close your eyes, and it feels a lot like listening to an audiobook.
Both the movie and bookshop owner Florence Green (Mortimer) enter the scene full of good intentions. The recently widowed Green, middle-aged and energetic, has purchased a sprawling but run-down house in a small Suffolk town that she hopes to turn into a bookshop.
Green is mansplained by the banker and other male influencers in town and hassled by wealthy residents who want to use the space for an arts center. Her first and best customer is recluse Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), who we’re told “adored books with the same passion that he detested his fellow man.”
The quiet moments are the best ones. While the adults in town, to a person, don’t know how to talk to Green, the children are lovely. Some Boy Scouts arrive to erect shelves, and the bookstore gets an underage first employee (Honor Kneafsey), an Anne of Green Gables type who convinces Green that her older sisters will be unreliable.
The story grooves along slowly, with seemingly inflated conflict, and a level of immoral town organization against Green that is hard to explain logically. When the powerful line up against this small-business owner, her allies are noble and dedicated.
And yet little of the above raises the pulse. There’s an and-then-this-happened … and-then-that-happened quality that makes it obvious “The Bookshop” was based on a novel. Fitzgerald fans probably will appreciate the dedication to details. (The bookstore itself is a damp but well-lit wonderland.) Newcomers will wonder about the strange pacing, where the conversation between characters — save Green and the children — often feels a bit distant.
None of the problems is the fault of Mortimer, who exudes a steely goodness, which is clearly needed to persevere in this book-phobic town. She’s strongest during a lovely scene with Nighy, who is nearly uncommunicative, but cordial — a surprisingly strong ally capable of a heartfelt gesture after all.
The third act has a few surprises, and the sad parts feel mostly heartwarming as well. “The Bookshop” isn’t an especially good film, but there’s no shortage of good in it.