There has to be something other than yet one more episode of that now endless franchise set on blank green screen in a galaxy far, far away worth seeing this week. Fortunately there is.
Almost no one actually says what they mean to one another in Isabel Coixet’s adaption of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Booker-nominated novel – at least not to their face. In fact all communications seem to be conducted ever-so-politely in that tactful but passive aggressive way the British were once famous for. The Bookshop, which is about snobbery and prejudice in a small English town, is set just before the swinging 60s – certainly nowhere in evidence here! And Florence (Emily Mortimer), a dreamy book-loving widow has just moved to a seaside town that appears as dreary as its permanently overcast weather (it was filmed in Ireland). It’s a stodgy class-ridden place too – tyrannically run by the local village plutocrat, Violet (Patricia Clarkson) and her toadying cronies on the high street. Who apparently had their own plans for the run-down property Florence leases and fits out as a cosy village bookshop – and then scandalously stocked with racily modern novels like Lolita.
Florence does meet one ally though, a grumpily reclusive fellow reader called Mr Brundish (Bill Nighy), who we first see lurking about in suit and tie and overcoat on the stony lonely beach Florence regularly braves the elements to go and read at. According to village gossip, he’s a suspicious character with a dark secret – and best avoided. But the two hit off in an oddly flirtatious way and join forces to do battle with Violet – in a fight that’s really about the soul of the town and its future. Florence’s assistant, a fiery local school girl (Honor Kneafsey) also has a pivotal role in the way this tale pans out. Despite the fusty nostalgic aura its marketing suggests, there are no neat conclusions or cosy homilies aimed at elderly book club types here, and the movie is far from the “tepid” affair some critics have (superficially) claimed. I was surprised by how thoughtful and unexpectedly dark it was – and pleasantly so.
But… in passing: Nowadays bookshops everywhere are vanishing, publications are closing down and few people read anything longer than a YouTube caption. In a film so much about the power of the written word to initiate social change and stir our spirits, Nabokov’s infamous novel – about a middle aged man’s sexual affair with an underage girl, is an interesting choice of symbolism. Certainly a prescient one (The Bookshop was written in 1978). Despite its literary merit, would Lolita even find a publisher today?
That title stands in for Beats Per Minute, something that probably means different things to different people. Could be something to do with the dance music (which features stirringly and powerfully in key scenes)… though Fitbit wearers will associate the term with their overall health and and matters of the heart – conditions both powerfully etched in French director Robin Campillo (Eastern Boys) remarkable new feature. It was the critics’ favourite at Cannes last year, and won that festival’s prestigious Grand Prix as well as going on to be France’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. Since then its been greeted with lavish praise wherever its been shown and hoovered up more awards too.
Yet, here it is, one year later, getting one solitary screen in Sydney, and probably only for two short weeks. Heck, its distributor, one that regularly brings out difficult and fringe arthouse films, didn’t even bother to mention its existence or hold media previews.
So why the cold shoulder? It’s a LGBTI film sure, but didn’t the tepid Love, Simon play in every multiplex in the country and win over the entire mainstream universe including Israel Folau? Yeah, well, this is a gay film, but one with a capital G. A confronting, impassioned and opinionated one. Angry even. Maybe it’s too much even for Newtown…
Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, and The Unknown Girl breakout Adèle Haenel lead the cast, and yes its about AIDS, so that means one of them will die. Yet that so familiar territory is covered in such a fresh and quite matter-of-fact way. All the action (and that does include some strong bedroom scenes) takes place in the early 90s as we follow a group of grassroots activists in Paris trying to combat public and bureaucratic indifference with regard to the epidemic. There is a tender love story at its core too, a tragic one, but way more intense and fascinating are the lengthy factional debates between the activists, who are roughly divided into militants and ultra-militants. Their impassioned arguments are as beautifully written, whip-smart and as stirringly polemical as anything in an Aaron Sorkin script – made all the more fiery by the fact that, literally, the stakes are life or death.
Blink and you’ll miss BPM. But please don’t – it’s one of the best films of the year. MA15+ from May 17 at Dendy Newtown. ★★★★1/2
Reviews – Russell Edwards