“…a very lonely town we were living in…”

Image: Southwold Pier (into the North Sea).

From: Penelope Fitzgerald – a Life (2013) by Hermione Lee:

“In 1957, quite suddenly, the life the Fitzgeralds had made at Chestnut Lodge fell apart. They left Hampstead, and went to live in Southwold on the Suffolk coast…

…In The Bookshop, the opening of the town’s first fish-and-chip shop is a major event; there was ‘no launderette, no cinema except on alternate Saturday nights’. The bookshop which gives the novel its name was based on the Sole Bay Bookshop, run by Mrs Phyllis Neame, and it was indeed the only one…

…A poltergeist plays a dramatic part in The Bookshop, and Fitzgerald always maintained that it was an absolutely real manifestation…”

James Medd wrote for Conde Nast Traveller on 24 Jun 2018:

“Based on a 1978 novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, Isabel Coixet’s The Bookshop is a classic study of manners, stiff with undercurrents of unspoken emotion and social friction. In the fictional Suffolk seaside town of Hardborough (Fitzgerald’s pointed name for Southwold), poor cousin to the ever-chic Aldeburgh, it’s 1959 but the Swinging Sixties seem a continent and a century away. Here, Nescafé is the very thing, cardigans are still handknitted and everyone knows their place. Into this apparent backwater lands war widow Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) with the innocent desire to open a bookshop – and a very English chaos ensues.

A convincing air of EM Forster Anglo-Saxon angst and the broad, brooding landscapes firmly suggest the film was shot in East Anglia, but Coixet, best-known for 2003’s My Life Without Me and 2005’s The Secret Life of Words, is a Catalan with a promiscuously international outlook. It turns out this version of Suffolk is in fact County Down in Northern Ireland, a well-trodden location best known as the home of Castle Ward, the real-life Winterfell in Game of Thrones.

Hardborough is played by Portaferry, a cluster of stone buildings above a harbour on the shores of Strangford Lough, largest sea inlet in the British Isles and Northern Ireland’s first Marine Nature Reserve. The dock itself features in several key scenes, as do the ice-cream-coloured houses along the front. The streets beyond are sufficiently unchanged to stand in for the 1950s too, and that’s where the exterior of Florence’s Old House Bookshop was recreated, in a former art gallery.

Also taking a starring role is nearby Crawfordsburn, a village on the north coast. Mostly given over to a country park, it takes in Helen’s Bay, a beach that alternates between gold sand and black rock and backs onto dunes of long grass and trees. One of Florence’s favourite haunts in the film, this is the venue for a key scene between her and the mysterious Mr Brundish, played by Bill Nighy, as well as an encounter with local smoothie Milo North (James Lance).

North’s home, a handsome blue-doored workman’s cottage built in local stone, is another memorable location. It’s to the south, in the grounds of Old Court, ancestral home of Lord de Ros near Strangford, which overlooks another bend in the lough. Rather grander is Bangor Castle, close to Crawfordsburn, which takes the role of the village’s Big House, home to Florence’s nemesis Mrs Gamart (Patricia Clarkson). Built in 1852 and now home to the local council, it makes a dramatic entrance but is used only for exterior shots. Interiors, including the tense drinks party early in the film and an intense private audience later on, were filmed at the other end of Europe in the equally spectacular Bell Recó in Argentona, near Barcelona. With its wood panels and gilding, this mansion is a popular wedding venue, and dates back to the precise period of the book.

Coixet followed a similar pattern for most of the interior shots in the film. Florence’s bookshop is a film studio but some more unusual Barcelona sites were used too. Standing in for offices at the start and end of the film are Fábrica Anis del Mono, a beautifully preserved distillery in nearby Badalona, and the Biblioteca Arús, an imposing public library housed in the former home of Catalan statesman Rossend Arús, in the city’s Passeig de Sant Joan. It’s a long way from Suffolk, but with Emily Mortimer and some clever lighting you’d never know it.”

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