In The Bookshop, Emily Mortimer plays Florence Green, a war widow who opens a bookshop in a small coastal England hamlet in 1959. She meets unexpected resistance, and then all-out war, from the town’s wealthy doyenne, Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), who envisions an arts centre for the historic and incurably damp old house.
The shop thrives in part because of the patronage of the town recluse (Bill Nighy), the aid of a precocious 11-year-old shop assistant (Honor Kneafsey) and the release of Nabokov’s titillating novel Lolita, but the class struggle between old-money conservatism and liberal progressiveness continues, and only one can win over the town.
Based on Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1978 novel and directed by Spanish director Isabel Coixet (Learning to Drive, Paris, Je T’Aime) the films is an elegy for many things, including independent bookshops, small-town life, and a love of reading in general. Mortimer chatted on the phone from New York about the film, “acting on steroids”, and her current fascination with poaching.
North Shore News: Just because you play an avid reader doesn’t mean you are one, of course, but do you have a favourite book?
Emily Mortimer: Great Expectations is my favourite. My father brought me up to love Dickens. There were only two requirements growing up: we weren’t allowed to be good at sports. He thought sport of all kinds, all organized physical activity, was the worst. And the other was to like Dickens. He read it to me when I was little and I read it growing up. And then I wrote my thesis on Dickens.
North Shore News: Are you a Kindle person, or a real-book person?
Emily Mortimer: I’m definitely a book person. I’ve never read a book on a Kindle, I wouldn’t know where to start! I’m a bit of a technophobe, though, it’s not just about books. I’m in the dark ages. Each book is a memory, and you look at them sitting on the bookshelf and you remember all the moments: all the coffee stains, and throwing them at the head of your boyfriend, and dropping them in the bath…
North Shore News: Did you read Ms. Fitzgerald’s book to prepare for the role of Florence?
Emily Mortimer: Yes, I very much read it and kept reading and re-reading it during filming. The tone of it was very helpful to understand the character. Florence is a very particular person; very self-effacing, not pushy, very quiet. She doesn’t take up a lot of space, but with not one ounce of self-pity. I love Fitzgerald’s tone: she has a wry sense of humour, and she says sad things in an unsentimental way, which I love. What Isabel (Coixet) did was inject some Spanish and Catalan passion to the story, so that on the surface you have these proper English manners, yet underneath there’s a lot of passion and feeling, a lot of pain.
North Shore News: Do you read to your children?
Emily Mortimer: Yes, my daughter is eight, and she would much rather be read to than read herself. Right now we’re reading Danny the Champion of the World. It’s so good! I love this strange world of poaching and the lure of the countryside … I had no idea there were so many ways to poach animals, or that pheasants loved raisins!
North Shore News: You know people are bound to be saddened by the outcome of the film. Are happy endings overrated?
Emily Mortimer: Not necessarily. There is hope at the end of the film, though not in the book. You know Florence is going to be OK because she’s an independent spirit and that’s what books have given her. So often we’re watching a triumph-over-adversity tale, not an accurate description of life, which is mostly trying very hard and failing but sometimes succeeding. I like that, that in the story, there’s a gain in the act of trying and putting one foot in front of the other, of standing up to bullies. There’s something in the fight that’s as important as the outcome, even when the powers-that-be prevail.
North Shore News: Violet seems to have it in for Florence from the beginning. Do you see this as yet another female power struggle?
Emily Mortimer: I’m glad it’s between two women, but no. It’s literally just symbolic of that clash of class and privilege when people in power decide they don’t want somebody who doesn’t have much power to succeed, to prevail. They use all their power to win: it’s random in a way, what the point of the fight is. Florence is quiet and gentle on the surface but she’s an independent thinker, and the kind of independent thinker that only somebody who reads a lot can be. Books down the ages have been a threat to authority, that’s why they’ve been burned and writers imprisoned, because the truth is dangerous to people in power. So Florence represents the subversive, radical truth that can be found in art. And it’s potentially dangerous.
North Shore News: Patricia Clarkson has emerged lately as an excellent villain, something you’ve not been allowed to play much…
Emily Mortimer: The devil gets all the best lines. Always has, from Milton on. So I’d definitely love to play one; there’s nothing better than a good baddie! Patricia says she wanted to play Violet as Gilda the Good Witch, and it was perfect: she plays a nasty woman with a gentle, beautiful demeanor, when underneath she was a snake of a person.
North Shore News: I imagine that reading and memorizing lines of any kind must be a breeze compared to the Aaron Sorkin dialogue you had to memorize (for HBO’s The Newsroom).
Emily Mortimer: Yes, that was very crazy. When I finished the show after three years, I hadn’t sat down once in my trailer. When we were shooting the last day I allowed myself to lie down in my trailer and I realized I had never seen it from that position before: I had always been pacing, trying to learn my lines. It was almost like acting on steroids, the muscles that it exercised in one’s brain. We were all so fast and snappy at the end of it. You could see these poor day players, they’d come in and be like “what the f**k is going on?”
North Shore News: The politics in that show were eerily prescient. Do you miss a show with that kind of current-affairs urgency?
Emily Mortimer: Yes, I really do because I feel like we need it more now than ever. Back then you felt like the liberal agenda was nearly complete. We had a very sane, decent sensible person in charge; the only thing left was transgender bathrooms… we were there! It was not apparent what was boiling under the surface. It makes me laugh now: (Sorkin) was so prescient about what was happening and what was going to happen. We talked about fake news before it was a thing. It turns out he was dead right. As we said in season one: “the most important thing in a democracy is a well-informed electorate”. But the truth has been so clouded by modern technology that it’s not really proper democracy.
North Shore News: Do you find you learn something about yourself, your craft, with each film?
Emily Mortimer: I think one does learn something with every job. Part of the pleasure and constant frustration of being an actor is that you never feel you’ve got a handle on things. Circumstances change: writers, directors, locations. Every time you do a good job there are a million new challenges, you always feel like you’re starting from the beginning. You just have to expect the unexpected and forgive yourself from feeling like a complete novice. You let yourself off the hook more as you get older. I still feel remorse at the end of the night, feeling like I should’ve done a scene differently. I just don’t get so scared as I used to.