Monday, June 25, 2018

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


It was a grey and wet Sunday afternoon in Auckland.

One of my sons was visiting from Wellington, and we had some hours to kill.

Diligently scanning the on-line listings, my son discovered that The Bookshop was screening at a cinema nearby.

I’ve been given two free tickets for the film,” said my son. “It won’t cost us anything.”

So the two of us trotted along to see The Bookshop.

I said it was a Sunday afternoon, so there was only a handful of others in the theatre. All had grey hair and most were women.

This is the demographic,” said my son, and proceeded to school me in the fact that, outside teen blockbusters and action movies, the great majority of films shown in cinemas are now aimed at oldsters, and especially older women. The same is, of course, true of most book festivals. Who but retirees have the time to go, in the middle of the week, and listen to authors selling their wares while pretending to discuss weighty literary matters? And older women tend to be more frequent readers of books than older men.

            Actually, I already knew this and didn’t need to be schooled, but I didn’t mind the conversation.

From the publicity, we expected the film to be aimed at this audience, and indeed it was.

Plot: In the late 1950s Florence, a book-loving widow in, I suppose, her forties (played by Emily Mortimer, who is 46) decides to set up a bookshop in a picturesque English seaside village. But society in the village is dominated by a prize bitch, the local gentrywoman (played by Patricia Clarkson), who wants to set up an arts centre in the building where Florence has set up her bookshop. So the bitch connives and plots with her henchpeople to run Florence out of town and have her bookshop closed. Bill Nighy (whose career is built on appearing in this sort of movie) appears as a local eccentric book-lover, who takes Florence’s part but to little effect.

Set nearly 60 years ago, the film has the same cosy air as those TV adaptations of Hercule Poirot or Inspector Alleyn detective stories. I could easily enumerate its faults in terms of production and concept. Under Isabel Coixet’s direction, the pace is far too slow and lingering, as if she is trying to stretch out her meagre screenplay.  Lots of static, moody shots of the grey sky and bare trees. There is the totally unbelievable character of the little girl, a fount of innocent wisdom, who becomes Florence’s assistant in the bookshop and who learns to love books to the point where, in a coda, we see her running a bookshop of her own. The story does not travel much distance, given that we are presented with neatly good and neatly bad characters from the get-go, and they never develop any nuance. I could even make some snarky remarks about Emily Mortimer’s limited performance – at least on this outing. (Both she and Patricia Clarkson give much better performances in Sally Potter’s raucous and hilarious black farce The Party).

More than anything, though, I would criticise the unreality of The Bookshop. It has briefs feints at being a movie for grown-ups. Florence chooses to stock the newly-published and controversial Lolita. “Gosh! How daring!”, some oldsters might think, ignoring the fact that Lolita has been freely available for all to read for over half-a-century. (And, paradoxically, having once been championed by liberal book-lovers, it is now as often damned by younger critics – especially women - for its uncomfortable theme of paedophilia.) And Bill Nighy’s eccentric may be seen reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit451, which is basically about the swamping of literacy by other media, but no intelligent discussion develops from this.

What we are stuck with, then, is the general idea that there is something morally superior about being a book-loving and bookshop-visiting person. Speaking as a book-lover and frequent visitor of second-hand bookshops, I would like to believe that I am morally superior, but I know this isn’t true. Running a bookshop is always a business before anything else; and even in the 1950s (but more so now) running a bookshop was always a very precarious business. My hunch is that, situated in such an isolated location with a very small local clientele, Florence’s bookshop would probably have folded anyway, without the melodramatic contrivances of a gentrywoman bitch.

I am irked by the Never-Never Land aspect of this film. Its England is an England that has long since vanished – picturesque little village, gentry, fishermen, eccentrics and of course not a brown face in sight. The type of England that would appeal to the readers of This England magazine, being somewhat akin to the BrexitFilms that I have considered on this blog. Please, please don’t tell me that it is based on a novel, by Penelope Fitzgerald, which was highly praised and shortlisted for the Booker way back in 1978. I already knew that, just as I knew that some of the events in the novel were based on the author’s life. But I am judging the film, not the novel – and its impact is an appeal to nostalgia and escapism.

At which point you ask “What’s wrong with that?” and I reply “Nothing at all… unless you are under the illusion that it is a truly adult drama.” I would add that doubtless it succeeds admirably with its intended audience of old ladies.

But as to that unreality…. My son and I are the sort of people who tend to sit through the final credits of a film as they scroll up, and we sat through the final credits of The Bookshop. We noted that nearly the whole technical crew (camera, editing, sets etc.) were Spanish and the film’s interiors were shot in Spain. Not surprisingly, the film won a prize at a Spanish film festival. We noted too that the exteriors – the picturesque seaside village – were shot in Northern Ireland. This England? Oh dear. You have to go offshore to find even its simulacrum now.

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