There is a certain kind of British drama that seems inescapable: A power struggle, where hostility is wrapped in gentility, all of it set comfortably in the nostalgic glow of the post-war era, between Churchill and The Beatles.
Even a non-English director, like Spain’s Isabel Coizet (“Learning to Drive”), finds she’s not immune to the charms of such a narrative — and the result is the quiet gracefulness found in “The Bookshop.”
Based on Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel, this story starts in a seaside village in East Anglia in 1959. Florence Green (played by Emily Mortimer), a widower who lost her husband in World War II, has arrived in this town with a dream: To buy a rundown but quaint house in the middle of the village and open a bookshop there. Florence is a lover of books, and thinks any town would be improved with more of them around. Who would object to that?
The village’s grande dame, Mrs. Violet Gamart (played by Patricia Clarkson), that’s who. Mrs. Gamart has harbored her own dream, of turning the rat-infested old house into a community art center. No one else in the village dares challenge Mrs. Gamart, nor do they ask aloud why she and her husband, Gen. Gamart (Reg Wilson), the richest family in the area, haven’t built such a center already.
Soon, the lines are drawn for a polite but forceful battle of wills. Mrs. Gamart draws upon her circle of influence, which includes local BBC radio personality Milo North (James Lance), an obsequious bachelor who sniffs around Florence’s shop. Florence has Christine (Honor Kneafsey), a schoolgirl who works part-time at the shop, and the reclusive Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), a voracious reader who quickly becomes Florence’s biggest customer and champion.
When Florence decides to stock a new novel in her shop — Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial “Lolita” — the etiquette is inadequate to hold back the vitriol from Mrs. Gamart and her forces.
Mortimer, so often cast as the English wallflower, gets to blossom here, as Florence maintains her poise in the face of the town’s opposition. Nighy is delightful, as always, playing the awkward but passionate Edmund. But it’s Clarkson who steals the movie, as Mrs. Gamart orchestrates her plot without raising her voice above a ladylike whisper.
Coixet, who wrote and directed, structures the narrative much like a novel. It may be a bit slow-going at first, as one starts sorting out the characters (aided by narration read by Julie Christie). But things pick up speed soon enough, toward a wicked twist of an ending, and “The Bookshop” becomes the movie equivalent of a page-turner.
Opened August 24 in select theaters; opens Friday, August 31, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated PG for some thematic elements, language and brief smoking. Running time: 113 minutes.