I saw this movie several weeks ago, but refrained from writing anything about it because I couldn’t make up my mind about it. Was it good or was it bad? Did I like it or didn’t I? A damning look at human nature and small towns, or just plain dull and depressing? I guess it all depends on personal opinion and, in truth, the movie probably encompasses all of these things. Anyway, I finally decided to set down a few thoughts about it and see what happens.
The film, directed by Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet (whose work I am unfamiliar with), is a joint Spanish-British-German production, filmed partly in Northern Ireland and partly in Spain. It is based on a novel by the late British writer Penelope Fitzgerald. The story is set in a fictional, small, English seaside town in the late 1950s. It is about the trials and tribulations of Florence Green, a middle-aged window who decides to open a bookshop in the town. She encounters opposition from the town’s establishment, headed by the formidable and ruthless Violet Gamart. Violet wants to use Green’s premises as a local arts centre, with herself as boss. She will stop at nothing to get Florence out of the building. Although Florence’s bookshop attracts increasing numbers of customers, local opposition is made worse when she starts stocking the controversial “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov. One of her few, substantial allies is Edmund Brundish, a wealthy, literature-loving recluse who lives in a big old house just outside town.
The movie is certainly not let down by the actors who play the principal characters. As Florence, we have English actress Emily Mortimer, who imbues her character with a certain sweet but steely determination to succeed. We all sympathise with Florence and her troubles with the villagers. As the dastardly Violet, we have the noted character actor Patricia Clarkson, who convincingly conveys the smiling, polite, but utterly ruthless nature of her character. Then, as Brundish, the literary hermit, we have the always memorable Bill Nighy, who I thought was perhaps a little bit too restrained – except when he memorably confronts and upbraids the unrepentant Violet.
I think the movie falls down in its editing and directorial style. The first half of the film is, in my view, far too slow. Characters gaze significantly at each other for what seems like minutes at a time without saying anything. There are too many camera shots of the dark, troubled waters of the nearby lake/sea, underlining (as if we need to be told) the dark currents of prejudice and hostility going on in the village. Also, better editing would have made scenes shorter and moved the story along at a snappier pace. The story really only speeds up and develops in about the last quarter of the film. Most of the impact is in the movie’s final scene, when a stark act of revenge from a completely unexpected source brings some satisfaction to offset the bastardry of the locals to Florence.
This film operates on several levels. It is about rivalry between two strong females. It is about the travails of the Outsider trying to fit in to a closed Community. It is especially about the prejudices, small minds, and sheer bloody-mindedness that is found in many small towns. I grew up in one, so I have some experience of it. I think this is why several acquaintances of mine (all females) thought the movie off-putting and depressing. My female companion, on the other hand, liked and enjoyed it. Although I can see why some people would think the film depressing, I quite liked it. Certainly, if you are looking for a feel-good movie that will leave you all happy and jolly, don’t go to this film. But if you want a penetrating, if ultimately bleak, study of human nature, then you will get something worthwhile out of this movie.
While I liked it, the film has too many flaws for me to give it a high rating. I give it three- and- a- half stars out of five.