“The Bookshop”

A Penelope Fitzgerald novel from 1978 inspires director and screenplay writer Isabel Coixet Castillo from her Spanish roots to the eastern coast of England where village emotions are repressed and class warfare is a chess game of strategies.

“The Bookshop” has a simple plot, beautiful cinematography, eccentric characters, and a “them against us” filmed screed. Throw in unrequited romance and a literary backdrop and Masterpiece Theater vibes reverberate. Most will be entranced.

Emily Mortimer is Florence Green, the widow of a serviceman and a mentor to the young teen, Christine ( Honor Kneafsey). Christine is the voiceover narrator, who is as spunky as Florence is persistent. Our time frame is 1959.

Conflict over opening the first bookstore in the village emanates from the aristocratic and controlling Violet Gamart, played dragon-like by Patricia Clarkson. Her very breath fires up trouble of every sort for Florence, who is not intimidated by wealth, power, or political position.

Florence and her late husband met working in a bookshop. Her husband used to read her poetry, and the Victorian line  “never give a lady a restive horse” made them laugh. Victorian etiquette aside,  the tea cosy, the Liberty of London prints, the risqué cards, the  Nescafé, the feather dusters, the cigarette holder, and fruitcake and milk-laden tea, all make us smile as well.

Sweet scenes of “sea scouts” helping Florence build bookshelves  show her mixing into the village community. Florence has a first customer, and gossip flows. The lonely and mysterious Mr. Edmund Brundish , a standout in Bill Nighy’s already brilliant repertoire, is another reason to see this period piece. Oscar-worthy is the buzz.

Small people in small British villages like Hardborough, Suffolk, make our heroine’s courage a virtue to love. When Nighy says, “ I would like to help you make me believe in things I thought forgotten”, we sigh. Nighy’s fist cupping, his pauses, his very breathing is impeccable.

I especially liked the montage of villagers looking out their closed windows. The nature scenes and the church blur, and the frames of Florence reading with light streaming on patterned pillows are romantically evocative. Kudos to cinematographer Jean Claude Larrieu, and to costumer designer Mercè Paloma, and  to Alfonso de Vilallonga’s string score. Color, composition and score were all lovely, as was the uncredited voice over by Julie Christie.

Literature as life changing is the subtext of “The Bookshop”:Ray Bradbury’s “ Fahrenheit 451” the nightmare.  “No one ever feels alone in a bookshop” is the truism. Our narrator and arson , Christine, shows us as much.

“Learning To Drive”

The film “Learning To Drive” is a girl thing. Written,directed and inspired by women, it falls short of giving viewers a comedy or a romance. What we have is a slice of two lives that has that “Lifetime” air.

The film’s premise is intriguing. A well-educated Sikh,who is also a papered, political refugee, works as a cabbie at night and gives driving lessons in Manhattan during the day. Ben Kingsley plays Darwan with an air of “old soul wisdom” and is fun to watch as his understatements point out Patricia Clarkson’s (Wendy’s) histrionics.Clarkson’s plays a New York book reviewer who is blind-sided by her husband’s serious dalliance with a writer she has handsomely lauded. Screenwriter Sarah Kernochan just doesn’t give our seasoned actors the dialogue needed to elevate its basic NYC divorce and move on tale. “Books floated me away” and now I must learn to view all blind spots before pressing the pedal seems too neat. In fact, “taking the wheel” seems like a gauche cliche.

After watching Jake Weber play the perfect husband to Patricia Arquette’s Allison Dubois in the television series “Medium”, it is hard to see him as the philandering husband. As he makes plans to co-habitate in Nyack, we see an unfaithful man who has made up his mind and does not think Wendy and their twenty-one years together is worth a try. Their daughter Tasha (Grace Gummer) is caught in the middle. Director Isabel Coixet does what she can with direct emoting in an underwritten script. I just expected more profundity from a word obsessed family. The British Jake Weber is underrated as he terrifically balances his Ted as scoundrel and sensitive former soul-mate.

I liked the back and forth of Darwan’s and Wendy’s lives. The Sikh culture and the Queen’s upbringing graphically showed that there was ” a lot of merging to do”. Arranged marriages and the will to love linked with “alone and crazy”. Laugh at the tantric sex and the ejaculate Thursdays,feel the face touching and the commode vomiting, but long for a wordier script and a good man who doesn’t need to be reminded that he is a good man.