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“The Bookshop” Is So British It Politely Swallows Back Its Own Conflicts

My deepest pleasure when watching The Great British Baking Show is trying to spot the nearly imperceptible sneer, or the eye roll tamed at the last second, or any case of contestants fighting to hide their actual emotions. To an American like me, the essence of Britishness isn’t what’s said but rather what’s not. Because of those unspoken, zipped-lip rules, some of the stories that float over from the U.K. seem almost incomprehensible to Americans. Watching, we have to wonder: Why don’t these people just fight it out and get on with it?

Writer-director Isabel Coixet’s period drama The Bookshop, for instance, is so bloody British that the story’s central concern is that an aristocratic heiress is quietly making it difficult for a young widow to run a bookshop in a small fishing town. This is a story of stifling manners and oppressive codes of conduct, where the wealthy “villains” wear a strained smile and an icky sheen of privilege. Social mores dictate that all others must simply fall in line. Though nearly nothing happens in this movie besides a woman opening a shop and beginning a standoffish friendship with a reclusive man, I still found myself drawn in, just as I was drawn to Iain’s discreet disaster of a baked Alaska (please check it out if you haven’t seen this TGBBS episode); sometimes the quiet is enticing.

Emily Mortimer plays Florence Green, whose dream is to honor her dead husband with a bookshop that would memorialize the importance of reading in their relationship. But most people in her rural town aren’t readers. The local heiress, Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), would rather the location Florence has selected become a small arts center. Honestly, Violet could choose a number of vacant storefronts, but because she’s rich, it seems, she essentially wants what she can’t have and orchestrates little inconveniences designed to push Florence elsewhere — as politely as possible. So politely, in fact, that I often forgot that was the actual plot line, until it snuck up on occasion.

This is the kind of film where a character (Florence) worries endlessly over the color of her dress and what that color conveys to the people who see it. Seriously, Florence is fitted for a red garment in the first act, and she’s still debating it with herself well into the third. It is as though anxiety is the oxygen these people breathe, and without it and their little tiffs and fantasy dramas, they would suffocate in boredom. There are some red herrings of conflict, like when Florence contemplates whether Lolita would be appropriate to display in the shop, which suggests the possibility of seeing a town uprising against a sensationalist piece of literature, i.e. some action. But everything resolves itself quite easily.

In American films, if a protagonist is racked with grief and financial pressures, they’re often depicted thrashing in a violent rage, desperate to feel something. Think Manchester by the Sea, and its protagonist’s penchant for picking bar fights. Neither the British nor American cinematic way is necessarily superior to the other, but it’s sometimes nice to be reminded of violence of the papercut variety, that some troubles can be worked through without an ass-kicking.

The Bookshop
Written and directed by Isabel Coixet  
Greenwich Entertainment
Opens August 24, Angelika Film Center and Landmark 57 West

 

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There’s Not Much Mystery in YA Adaptation Another Me

There’s very little mystery in Isabel Coixet’s adaptation of Cathy MacPhail’s young-adult novel Another Me, a ghost story often praised for its ambiguity.

Fay Delussy (Sophie Turner) is haunted by dreams of a fetch, a spooky double whose appearance portends death. This spectral figure could be an expression of Fay’s adolescent fears and anxieties, but writer-director Coixet manifests her with Turner’s menacing second-person narration (“You’ve always had bad dreams”). For a few brief, intriguing moments it seems as if Another Me will unfold from the perspective of this otherworldly stalker.

Unfortunately, what follows is both muddled and conventional. Fay desperately tries to find an explanation for the eerie sightings of another her, but Coixet’s early revelation of the double saps the search of any suspense. During the awkward wait for protagonist to catch up with audience, Fay vacillates between passive and defiant. Turner never grasps her core personality, and she suffers in comparison to the strong performances of Claire Forlani (Fay’s evasive mother), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (a charismatic drama teacher) and Geraldine Chaplin (the wigged-out neighbor) in underwritten roles.

Even better is a wraithlike Rhys Ifans (the only Welsh actor in the Cardiff-set film) as Fay’s beloved father, whose diagnosis of primary-progressive multiple sclerosis heralds the family’s emotional and financial decline. His anguished disclosure of a family secret briefly brings this bloodless mess to life. Perhaps if Coixet (Elegy) had approached Another Me as a family drama instead of a genre exercise, she might have captured its real horrors.

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‘The Secret Life of Words’

Unsmiling, pathologically private, and all but wordless, deaf factory girl Hanna (Sarah Polley) uses an enforced vacation to volunteer as a nurse on an oil rig in the Irish Sea, where she tends to Josef (Tim Robbins), a badly burned worker with enough fight left in him to flirt with his enigmatic attendant and try to coax her out of her strategic silence. Spanish writer-director Isabel Coixet appears to have made a close study of Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves: What pleasure there is to be wrung from the exceptionally banal. The Secret Life of Words lies in the harsh, unforgiving beauty and wonderfully strange social life of the isolated rig. In due course skeletons will march out of closets, but the movie yields up its secrets with slow reluctance. Which is just as well, since the nagging voices in Hanna and Josef’s heads force their way out to reveal inner lives as attenuated and silly as those in Coixet’s 2003 My Life Without Me, which made similarly scant use of Polley’s prodigious talent.

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Preparing for the Not So Sweet Hereafter in a Sarah Polley Weepie

A tearjerker that falters in its attempts at deep thoughts, My Life Without Me examines how looming death can become an opportunity to bring life into high relief. Ann is 23, a mother of two, and married to Don (Scott Speedman), her well-meaning, simplistic first love. She’s either at her night job cleaning a Canadian university or taking care of the family at their trailer. When she’s diagnosed with terminal cancer, Ann starts addressing herself in the second person (“your whole life’s been a dream and you’re only now waking up”), getting wise to everyday denials (“no one ever thinks about death in a supermarket”), and jotting down things she wants to do before she dies (“say what I’m thinking”).

As Ann, Sarah Polley excellently conveys the mysterious calm of someone who is barely holding things together and yet sees beyond the mess. What’s annoying and eventually absurd is writer-director Isabel Coixet’s decision to have her heroine keep the diagnosis a secret. Though supposedly embracing new freedoms, Ann prepares for her death with a to-do list, hemmed in by the same concerns she’s trying to escape. The tapes she secretly records for loved ones are filled with increasingly inflexible requests. She tells her husband to remarry, even setting him up with their next-door neighbor (conveniently named Ann). She instructs her mother (Deborah Harry), a bitter harbinger of middle-aged loneliness, to date. To Lee (Mark Ruffalo), with whom she’s had a half-baked, last-ditch affair, she says: Get some furniture. These sentiments are meant to show how much she cares, but in the end they come across as overly tidy dictates from beyond the grave. —Michael Miller