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Non-Review Review: The Bookshop

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

The Bookshop opens with the cinematic equivalent of that frustrating modern home decoration trend of shelving books with the spines facing inwards so as to ensure something approaching uniformity of style while denying anything resembling individual identity.

This is perhaps the perfect encapsulation of The Bookshop then.

The Bookshop is nominally a film about the power and passion generated by books. It is the story of a young woman who dreams about opening a book shop, who strikes up a relationship with an older man via book recommendations, and who imparts the gift of reading to her young assistant. It closes with the observation that “you’re never alone in a bookstore.” As such, The Bookshop is very emotionally in invested in the idea of reading as an important and informative act.

However, it never really says anything inspiring or insightful about the act of reading. To be fair, it is very hard to extol the virtues of reading in the format of a feature film, much as it would be hard to capture the appeal of television on a phonographic record. The central premise of The Bookshop was always going to be an uphill battle, and it should be noted that there are any number of other prestige pictures that have stumbled over the idea of trying to capture the power of the written word in a visual medium; The Reader and The Book Thief come to mind.

That said, even allowing for the obstacles facing the basic premise of The Bookshop, the film does itself few favours. The Bookshop fills its runtime with pointless purple prose narration and terrible exposition, articulating anything that might possibly be considered ambiguous and often reiterating details already established. (To pick one particularly clumsy example, of one character, another bluntly announces, “He’s been a recluse since the death of his beloved wife.” The film having already established this repeatedly, and at great length.)

The Bookshop is clearly pitching itself in the modern convention of gentle British films set against the backdrop of the mid-twentieth century. Their Finest is one of the better examples in recent memory, another story of a woman trying to navigate her way through the casual background sexism of a creative industry with the support of a seemingly-aloof-yet-sensitive-and-wisened Bill Nighy. However, the comparisons to Their Finest do few favours for The Bookshop, serving to highlight the film’s difficulty creating compelling characters or to balance whimsy and gravity.

Emily Mortimer does her best in the lead role, but suffers from the fact that Florence Green feels less like a human being than a tether for a set of familiar plot points. The film denies Mortimer any opportunity to develop or deepen the character, with the ubiquitous voiceover helpfully illuminating Florence’s thoughts on the people around her without leaving any room for nuance or implication. Nighy fares just a little bit better, in large part because the film opts he have him read his voice-over directly into the camera, which seems stylistically adventurous when compared to the rest of the film.

The Bookshop is clumsily put together. Alfonso Vilallonga’s soundtrack is saccharine. Much like the script and the direction, The Bookshop seems completely unwilling to trust the audience with the fact of interpretation. The Bookshop is a film that does not just elaborate on what is happening in painstaking detail through awkward voiceover, but is also sure to tell the audience how they should be feeling in any given moment. These emotional cue cards are lathered atop the film like treacle, so dense that it is surprising that any light makes it through.

Characters in The Bookshop repeatedly explain that reading a book helps put them to sleep. Maybe they could try watching The Bookshop instead.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 1

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