Thursday, September 6, 2018
It’s a pity that old Mr. Brundish will never get to read Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. Thanks to Florence Green’s book shop, and her recommendations, he’s already read Fahrenheit 451 and is ready for more. But Mr. Brundish dies before he can turn a page. Moreover, the book shop itself perishes in the flames of a fire. And the picturesque little seaside village can only limp along without it.
Mr. Brundish’s tragedy is the tragedy of this film in microcosm. Indeed, it’s the tragedy of literacy these days; and I’m writing this on the very day that the demise of The Village Voice has been announced.
All the elements of a small English village idyll are here: The East Anglia town is the very picture of a rustic fable. The villagers are the usual collection of types—the crusty old curmudgeon who lives on the hill, the social matriarch who controls society, the young widow who comes to town as a stranger bent on winning over the inhabitants, and the clever little girl who learns to love books. But leave your expectations at the door. THE BOOK SHOP is so much more than that. THE BOOK SHOP is so much better than that. Although I can sympathize, I guess, with those disgruntled viewers who will leave the movie theater with a sour taste in their mouths. They want muffins, tea cozies, and a view of the sea. And this is largely denied them.
Let’s get this straight: THE BOOK SHOP is a devastating indictment of insular small-town life. And it’s emblematic of the crisis loyal book readers are facing today. Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel was written in 1978, and she certainly could see what was to come.
No sooner has Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) come to town to open her book shop than the city elders take deadly aim. The banker is dubious. The neighbors are chilly. And Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) is a study in pure evil: Under the feint of seizing the store’s property in order to open an Arts Center, she’s simply bent on destroying Florence’s dream. Clarkson’s quiet and studied portrayal is calculated to leave you writhing in fury. Aligned in Florence’s corner is that crusty old hermit on the hill. And here we have Bill Nighy in a brilliantly restrained portrayal of an old man who’s finding out too late what love can be all about. He dies while on an errand to save Florence’s shop from destruction. And if you thought that Violet’s evil gnashes your teeth, prepare yourself for the rage that will shake your dentures with what happens to him. And if you love Dandelion Wine like I do, then you are overwhelmed at the book that will remain unread by his side.
But there is a book that will be read. And that is Robert Hughes’ masterpiece, The Innocent Voyage. (Here, it bears its alternate title, A High Wind in Jamaica, the title with which Alexander Mackendrick’s film adaptation reached the movie screen in 1965). This is the book that Florence Green gives the little girl, Christine (Honor Kneaf), who has been working for her in the book shop. And in case you don’t know, this is the book that turns the tables on the Stevensonian kind of pirate yarn: Here, it’s the children who are destructive and the pirates who are their captives. Anyway, taking her cue from the book, little Christine salutes Florence Green by burning up the book shop in a gesture of defiance, depriving wicked Violet Gamart from getting her greedy hands on it. The voice on the soundtrack turns out to be her voice, looking back from the distance of fifty years on the book shop that changed her life.
THE BOOK SHOP is a painful blend of stark village depravity with a winning, fable-like quality. The scenes between Emily Mortimer and Bill Nighy are the finest, albeit chaste, love scenes this writer has seen in years.
Honor this movie. Celebrate it for all its bumps in the road. And, by all means, read Dandelion Wine and A High Wind in Jamaica.