Politics can be brutal, and I’m not talking about all the mud-slinging ads on your TV screen. I’m talking about the ruthless behind-the-scenes machinations that drive the plot of “House of Cards” and “Deadwood.”
As has been oft observed, bureaucratic battling is no less vicious when the stakes are low, which is the lesson that a plucky English widow learns in the period drama “The Bookshop,” based on a 1978 novel by Penelope Fitzgerald (winner of the Man Booker Prize for “Offshore”).
The film adaptation, by Spanish director Isabel Coixet, may look at first glance like a Merchant-Ivory flick set in the 1950s. Emily Mortimer (“Hugo,” “The Newsroom”) stars as Florence Green, a youngish war widow who decides to open a bookshop on the high street of her tiny English hamlet, only to discover that the town tyrant (Patricia Clarkson) has her eye on the same building to establish an arts center to burnish her reputation.
The lengths she’ll go to crush another person’s dreams make “The Bookshop” a darker excursion that this kind of costume drama usually delivers. Ultimately, it’s about power and how it gets used, and the fact that the deceptions and betrayals are so intimate makes for tense viewing despite the quiet tone.
Clarkson (“Pieces of April,” “Six Feet Under”) is excellent, as expected, as the manipulative Violet Gamart, but hers is a familiar enough character type. The emotional heart of the film is the friendship that grows between Florence and an old hermit played by Bill Nighy, a refugee of sorts from the briar patch of high society who tries to come to Florence’s refuge. The two actors’ scenes are tender and intense, hinting at depths of emotion behind their respective stiff upper lips.
If this were Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte, that friendship could have developed into something else. But “The Bookshop” is a froth-free zone, and while its ending might not exactly be a happy one, it has a satisfying twist that leaves things on a hopeful note.
Greenwich Entertainment presents a film written and directed by Isabel Coixet, based on the novel by Penelope Fitzgerald. Rated PG (for some thematic elements, language, and brief smoking). Running time: 113 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.