It took nine years for Isabel Coixet to take The Bookshop from the page to the big screen. The Catalan filmmaker, who has more than 20 feature credits to her name, couldn't find anyone willing to fund a story about a woman struggling to start a business in a small seaside British town in 1959. Where was the drama?Where was the sex?
Based on a 1978 novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, the story centers around Florence Green, a widow who, after nearly two decades of loneliness, decides to take a risk and open a bookshop in the coastal village of Harborough, where she's settled down. This turns out to be more fraught than expected, especially once the venture catches the eye of town grande dame Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson, viciously cutting in the most elegant way), who seeks the historic premises for her own pet project, and does whatever she can to thwart Florence's ambitions.
In many ways, the film is reminiscent of the 2000 movie Chocolat, with the magic of books standing in for the indulgence of sweets. "There is this thing in little communities when someone does something different, Coixet said in an interview with Refinery29. "They immediately get suspicious. Also, I think there are people that think they know better. They hate when someone does something they've never known before."
It's easy to see how the plot could seem tame, but in Coixet's hands, it takes on a crafted complexity and tension that could put even HBO's Sharp Objects to shame. As for the sex? Well, there is none — not even a kiss. But that doesn't mean the film isn't sexy. Florence develops a correspondence with elder town recluse Edmund Brondish (Bill Nighy), a quiet, dignified man, and the only Harborough resident who actually loves to read. He sends her letters, she sends him books, until eventually, the two meet face to face, and develop a touching rapport that makes one wonder what could have been had they met earlier in life.
"I always joke they have oral sex, [because] they talk a lot," Coixet said.
"All these producers, financiers, they were asking for more of a love story," she added. "To me, there is a very, very deep love story there. And it's not that I don't like to portray sex, but I don't think sex scenes belong to that. It would ruin something. Sometimes something as subtle as them lightly touching their hands could be sexier than just fucking."
In fact, the characters' restraint throughout the film is part of what makes it so compelling. You can feel tumultuous emotions bubbling under this veneer of propriety — it feels more violent, somehow. Violet's polite and honeyed barbs at Florence are all the more hurtful for their silky exterior.
This is in direct contrast with their tempestuous surroundings. The film is very literary in its use of nature and scenery to convey inner pain and conflict. Jean-Claude Larrieu's cinematography is sumptuous, the muted jewel-toned colors of the craggy seaside and damp forest melding with the tweeds and sensible cardigans of patrons of The Old House Bookshop. Violet alone pulls off the gold silks and pastel dresses of the high society set.
Coixet had worked with Clarkson twice before, first in 2008's Elegy and then 2014's Learning to Drive. "She's phenomenal," Coixiet said. "She can be sweet and she can be tough, and she can be the most elegant person I ever met."
Clarkson actually helped get the script to Mortimer, who is married to actor Alessandro Nivola, Clarkson's co-star on the Broadway run of The Elephant Man. "Every time I've seen Emily on a screen, I just fell in love with her," Coixet said about her lead actress. "I love her sweetness and her honesty, and her truth. We had an instant connection. We talk about life, love, Champagne, dance, pain, loveliness, fun things, very deep things. She has a Masters in Russian literature. You see some actors and you think, probably they are good, but they look like they never really read a book in their life — except scripts. I want my actors involved in the context, and what's behind the script."
The film, which took home 11 Goya Awards (basically the Spanish Oscars) in 2017, including the title of best Spanish film, is probably not for everyone. It's slow and understated. But if you love books, and enjoy watching women wield whatever power is at their disposal, then I highly recommend it. There is no villain in The Bookshop; only interesting women, doing their best. And books. Miles and miles of beautiful vintage books. That's hot.