They're all there

Isabel Coixet and Emily Mortimer on John Berger and The Bookshop

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Emily Mortimer star of Isabel Coixet's The Bookshop dedicated to John Berger
Emily Mortimer star of Isabel Coixet's The Bookshop dedicated to John Berger Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Isabel Coixet's The Bookshop, loosely based on the novel by Penelope Fitzgerald and starring Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy and Patricia Clarkson (who starred in Learning To Drive with Ben Kingsley) is dedicated to John Berger. Isabel also dedicated her 2005 film The Secret Life of Words, starring Sarah Polley and Tim Robbins, to Berger. In 2010, Isabel created From I to J an audio-installation of Berger's letters in From A to X at Casa Encendida in Madrid with readings from Tilda Swinton, Penélope Cruz, Isabelle Huppert, Monica Bellucci, Sophie Calle, Maria de Medeiros, Clarkson, and Polley.

Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) at Violet Gamart's (Patricia Clarkson) fête
Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) at Violet Gamart's (Patricia Clarkson) fête Photo: Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and she won for her novel Offshore in 1979. John Berger won in 1972 for his novel G. and From A to X was longlisted for the 2008 Booker Prize.

The great quality of this rather free adaptation of Fitzgerald's 1978 novel is how Isabel Coixet (who is also the cinematographer) depicts the townspeople's two-faced behaviours where meanness comes disguised as helpfulness and the will to destroy others wins over any real decency.

Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), a widow living in a small East Anglian seaside village in 1959 decides to open a bookshop in an old house that stood abandoned for quite some time. Nothing upsetting about that, one might think, and yet, this endeavour brings out the worst in everyone in town.

With two exceptions: Mr Brundish (Bill Nighy who is excellent at showing disdain as well as admiration where fit), a recluse and avid reader who discovers Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita through Florence, and a little curly-hair girl named Christine (Honor Kneafsey) who sports inventive sleeves on her cardigan and helps out although she doesn't like reading very much.

The Bookshop poster at the New York Public Library Young Lions screening
The Bookshop poster at the New York Public Library Young Lions screening Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The town gossips' friendly smiles hide their Schadenfreude when the shop gets into more and more trouble. Not least that is because of Mrs. Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), the society lady who rules the roost. She is the only one who is beautifully dressed in this film - all the better to hide that she is the most vicious of them all.

Mr Brandish knows his preferences in books. He says he likes to read biographies about nice people and novels about nasty ones. I am sure he would approve of this fiction film. A head kerchief with birds presents a clue to where his heart was at from the very start.

At the New York Public Library Young Lions screening of The Bookshop I asked Isabel Coixet and Emily Mortimer about what John Berger means to them.

Anne-Katrin Titze: I noticed that you dedicated the film to John Berger. I am wondering what does he mean to you? What do his books mean to you? And is there a connection in particular to this film?

Isabel Coixet: I met John many, many years ago. And since I met him I always considered him my mentor. And in moments where I thought, you know, maybe this thing about the movies I have to … Especially in the process of doing The Bookshop, you know, since there were so many years. We'd have a start date and then it was postponed and then the money and ah. And John always, you know, he adored Penelope Fitzgerald. I think he met her in London in the Sixties.

Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy) reads Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451
Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy) reads Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 Photo: Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

John was always very very encouraging. He was always telling me "You have to do this thing! You can do other things but you have to do it. You are the person to really get what Penelope Fitzgerald means and what this book meant. You have to do it." The thing is, he died when we were doing the film.

This is the second film I dedicated to him because I did another film called The Secret Life Of Words and I dedicated that to him too. And all his books are in it and there's a picture of him in the bookstore at the end. It's the last picture I took of him in Paris. And it's there for a brief moment.

And for me he was a very, very, very important person and I remember when we met and just the fact that he had faith in me helped me to have a little faith in me, in myself.

Emily Mortimer: And all his books are in, as she was saying, are in the bookshelves in The Bookshop. You can't see them but they're all there.

IC: They're all there.

The Bookshop opens in the US on August 24.

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