Emily Mortimer is feeling quite bookish.
The actress stars in The Bookshop, a new film based on the 1978 Penelope Fitzgerald novel of the same name, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, and EW has an exclusive first look at the trailer (above).
Mortimer portrays Florence Green, an ambitious young widow who is determined to open a bookshop in a conservative coastal town in 1959 Great Britain. Florence tries to precipitate a cultural awakening through the books she stocks (Nabokov, Bradbury), but in doing so draws the ire of the town, including a local haughty dame, Violet (Patricia Clarkson). Florence is supported by a reclusive, kindly widower (played by Bill Nighy), but the obstacles might prove too much for her and the little shop she loves.
Ahead of stateside release of The Bookshop (Aug. 24), EW chatted with Mortimer about her own love of reading, the moving messages of the film, and her own favorite bookshop.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Were you a fan of the original novel before signing on to the film?
EMILY MORTIMER: No, I wasn’t. I had read only one novel by Penelope Fitzgerald before I was introduced to the script, which was The Blue Flower. I’ve since become a big fan of hers. I think she’s one of the great British writers, but I didn’t know anything very much about her at all apart from that one novel, which I’d loved. I love her prose style. It’s incredibly wry and heartbreaking without being at all sorry for itself.
Since you were new to the novel, what attracted you to the project?
Patricia Clarkson was the person who introduced me to the script, to [director] Isabel Coixet. She told me that Isabel wanted to send me a script. She had worked with her on Learning to Drive and Elegy, and she thinks she’s one of the great directors, and such a pleasure to work with. I would be foolish not to read the script immediately and to consider it, so I took her advice. I just felt it was really unusual. [It’s] an interesting, quiet film that was quietly subversive in a way, and challenging to the conventions of cinema storytelling and of the way we think about life. To me, it felt like the opposite of the American-dream story. It was like you can try and try and try at something and still fail, and that is very often the experience of most of our lives.
Of course, the beauty is not in the succeeding, but in the trying and the courage to keep trying even when things point to the fact that it’s not going to go your way. Also, there are these losers and winners in this movie, and yet the real winners and losers are not who they seem.… The people who win ostensibly are morally empty, and little Florence Green at least always has an appreciation for art and communication, and the freedom that being a book reader gives you. That’s one of the first and last lines of it — you’re never lonely in a bookshop. There’s a freedom that being a reader gives you that nothing can take away from you. I just liked that.
In preparing for the role, did you do much research into Penelope Fitzgerald?
Yes, I did. I read a biography of her that was really instructive. Both of her grandparents were bishops in the Church of England, and they were both really bright, literate people, and she came from a family of great intellectuals. She herself was one. She went to Cambridge and was very, very bright. And then she married a sort of ne’er-do-well guy who was a drunk, and she spent the first 20 years of her grown-up life trying to scrape together money to pay for his drinking habit. It wasn’t until she was in her 60s that she started writing novels.… When he finally died, she came out of herself and wrote a book and became this star writer. I got from her life this sense that life can be really, really hard and challenging and sad, and yet you feel she herself, as a person, was never sorry for herself and she kept on. She was brave and determined and didn’t take herself or anything much too seriously. The thing that sustained her through all these difficult times was her love of books. I really felt that was something that could inform Florence. The most important thing was to never feel very sorry for myself. That was something I got from reading the biography, as well as other books written by Penelope Fitzgerald.
Did your own personal love of reading or books inform your choices?
Yes. Although I feel, funnily enough, doing this movie has got me back into reading. I am a big appreciator of books and have loved them and felt very much sustained by them at periods in my life. But there are other periods of your life when life gets in the way.… There have been periods of time where I really got out of the habit of reading, and it became a thing I felt guilty about. All these brilliant novels would pile up by the side of my bed, and every night I’d mean to start reading them and never would, and just felt guiltier and guiltier and more and more berated by these piles of worthy literature. Just mounting up as this mountain of guilt. But I’m back into it now again, after a few years of having young kids. It’s an antidote to confusion about life and the world we live in. There’s something about being able to lose yourself in a book that is a kind of medicine. Especially right now in this moment we’re at, where everything is so sound-bitey and there’s so much strange certainty and black-and-white thinking on the internet. There’s something about a novel, where everything is complex and there are lots of gray areas and a story takes a long time to unfold. That is an especially good antidote for the modern moment.
Did you do any work in bookshops in preparation?
I didn’t, but I have visited a lot of bookshops in my life, and I know very well what it’s like to be in a bookshop and to experience that. I didn’t practice selling books. I probably should have done. I think it would be fascinating, especially in a little bookshop, the kind of insight you get into people from selling them books. The fastest way of getting to know somebody is looking at the books on their bookshelf, and so selling books to people must be fascinating. I’ve often thought that about being a florist — it must be a good way of getting to know people’s secrets. Who they send flowers to — you know immediately who they love, who they’ve fallen out with, who they’re trying to make up with. Books, in a funny way, are an even deeper insight into somebody, so I’d love to give it a go.
At least based on the trailer, this film seems to be situated in this very particular time in Britain and exhibits this postwar sense of propriety and emotional repression. Is that a fair assessment?
What’s interesting is, because it’s a film about British manners but it’s made by a very passionate Spaniard, it’s got a real dose of teeming passion and restrained passion, which makes it even more intense under the surface. There’s an interesting push and pull between the on-the-surface propriety and the under-the-surface feeling. That’s something Isabel really succeeded in bringing out, in a way that is quite devastating at times. Especially the romance between me and Bill Nighy’s character, which is never anything more than just a feeling between us, but it’s heartbreaking in the way Isabel directed those moments. The push and pull on the surface of British propriety and under the surface intense sadness and longing and pain — it’s a really cool cocktail, the way that she’s mixed it.
Do you have a favorite memory from shooting?
Every scene I did with Bill. Getting to work with Isabel and then getting to perform with Bill has been one of the great experiences of my acting career. I love him as a person. I just love who he is. He’s an incredibly elegant man inside and out, and a real gentleman inside and out. Acting with him was so easy and fun. I loved it. That will be the great takeaway from having done the movie, as well as having discovered Isabel.
What’s your favorite bookshop in the world?
There was a bookstore in New York called Book Court, which was on Court Street, which is very, very recently gone, and that was pretty brilliant. Blackwell’s in Oxford is really one of the great bookshops of the world. It’s really exciting going in there, and yet it’s not intimidating. Somehow it’s very welcoming. It’s not just undergraduates [at Oxford University] that go there. Everybody in the city goes to Blackwell’s to get a book. From kids to old people to everybody and all the students.
Walking around is just incredible. There’s the amazing music part of it, and then the geography part of it, and the history part of it, and it’s endless. You feel a little bit cleverer and better read by osmosis from having gone in there. It’s full of curious people wanting to know more about the world. It’s a good vibe. Just knowing all the brilliant minds that have gone in there and bought books for I don’t know how long. My dad went to Oxford, and so did my brother. And my grandfather went to Oxford too, my dad’s dad. [Mortimer herself also attended Oxford]. I like going into Blackwell’s with my kids. For pretty much a century, members of my family have been going to Blackwell’s to buy books, and there’s a nice feeling from that too.