The Bookshop ✮✮

Remainder Bin

by Glenn Lovell

This handsome but rather humdrum Spanish-UK adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel stars Emily Mortimer as a determined widow in 1959 Suffolk who faces down the usual assortment of village naysayers to open a small bookstore. Bill Nighy and Patricia Clarkson lend able support as, respectively, a reclusive bibliophile who champions the new business and a wealthy, politically connected so-and-so intent on sabotaging same.

After reading a book, Florence Green (Mortimer) “loved taking long walks to clear her mind of all the emotions and feelings that had started within her,” we’re told in stilted narration that reads as if it’s lifted verbatim from the source novel.

Though pibookshop2ctorially arresting and earnestly performed by all, “The Bookshop” ultimately disappoints as standard PBS Masterpiece fare. Directed and scripted by Spain’s Isabel Coixet (“Learning to Drive”) and filmed in Northern Ireland, this modest character piece feels at once self-consciously arty (Florence recalls her late hubby in soft-focus flashbacks; Nighy’s Mr. Brundish breaks the fourth wall) and as studied as a John Constable pastoral that creaks to life.

Florence’s tentative approach to Brundish’s front gate, right down to the skewed Dutch angle, owes something to classic David Lean. Indeed, sub the mysterious Brandish for the thwarted Miss Haversham in Lean’s adaptation of Dickens’ “Great Expectations” and you’ll catch my meaning.

Another problem, this modest import is chock-a-block with signpost red herrings that cause us to expect the worst, something more sinister and perverse, like the school gossip that leads to suicide in Lillian Hellman’s “Children’s Hour.” Among these strategically placed dud mines: a stash of naughty postcards, a possibly dangerous paraffin heater, late afternoon tête-à-têtes between a local poet (James Lance) and Florence’s precocious 10-year-old assistant (Honor Kneafsey), who, as an adult, turns out to be the story’s narrator.

Florence turns Brundish on to Ray Bradbury by ordering “Fahrenheit 451.” He reassures her that Nabokov’s “Lolita” is a lot more than sensationalist smut and should be prominently displayed in her window. Why a bookshop owner looking to win over inhospitable locals would take such a risk is anybody’s guess.

Reading, a passion for the written word, is hardly what you’d call cinematic. Which is why, apart from “84 Charing Cross Road,” Truffaut’s 1966 adaptation of “Fahrenheit 451,” and a handful of other titles, it’s hard to come up with mainstream films on the subject. The trick is to approach the theme tangentially, use it as a metaphor for something else, like unrequited love or dystopian repression. Coixet and company have small-town hypocrites in their sights but, alas, in the end prove too polite to pull the trigger.

THE BOOKSHOP ✮✮ With Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, Patricia Clarkson. Scripted, directed by Isabel Coixet from Penelope Fitzgerald novel. Rated PG. 113 min.

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