Thursday, 23 September 2021

Social upheaval is taken as read

Social upheaval is taken as read

BASED on a Booker Prize-nominated novel about a woman who opens a bookshop in a sleepy seaside town, it’s fair to say The Bookshop is one for the bibliophiles among us.

Or so the filmmakers will hope. Writer-director Isabel Coixet’s screenplay of Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1978 offering has its own bookish pedigree, having won the Frankfurt Book Fair prize for Best International Literary Adaptation.

Henley is of course blessed with a number of bookshops, but not everywhere is so fortunate — something that was the case even in 1959, when both novel and film are set.

Turville Heath girl Emily Mortimer, the daughter of Rumpole of the Bailey author Sir John, plays the recently widowed Florence Green, who decides to open a bookshop in the small (and fictional) coastal town of Hardborough, Suffolk.

Something of a free spirit, Florence puts her grief behind her and risks everything on the venture — the bookshop being the first of its kind in the sort of town Philip Larkin would have recognised from his Mr Bleaney days as a young librarian living in digs.

There’s a temptation to think of the late Fifties as a comparatively idyllic period in our national life — before the end of the Chatterley ban, and all that — but Sputnik 1 had been launched into orbit just over a year before this drama is set.

Meanwhile, two of the titles that prove so contentious in Fitzgerald’s Hardborough — Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 — had been published in 1955 and 1953 respectively.

Another reason Florence finds herself up against it is her choice of premises.

As luck would have it, she chances upon The Old House — an abandoned, damp house said to be infested by ghosts.

None of which deters Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), a controlling and vengeful social doyenne, who hopes to open an arts centre in the building. Moral support comes in the form of Florence’s best customer, Mr Brundish (Bill Nighy), the lonely and mysterious inhabitant of the house at the top of the hill.

But when Mrs Gamart’s nephew, a member of parliament no less, sponsors a bill that empowers local councils to buy any historical building that has been left uninhabited for five years, things do not look good for Florence and the future of her business.

The stage is set for a classically English tale of purse-lipped nimbyism, pettifogging narrow-mindedness and resistance to change.

The political parallels are not far to seek, are they?

The Bookshop is showing from today (Friday) at the Regal Picturehouse cinema.

Matthew Wilson

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