Emily Mortimer: There's so much moral certitude on the internet, everyone thinks they're right and that is scary
Emily Mortimer's new movie The Bookshop was shot in Northern Ireland and follows the story of an avid bookworm. She tells Geoffrey MacNab why she never wants to read on a Kindle and how her late father, Rumpole author Sir John Mortimer QC, influenced her wariness over social media
The Brooklyn bookshop next to her home may just have closed down but you won't find English actress Emily Mortimer reading novels on a digital device.
"I guess it is ageing me but I am a technophobe. I don't know how to work a Kindle," Mortimer (46) confides. "Books are definitely something that I like to hold and spill my tea on, and drop in the bath and have as little mementoes of periods in one's life. I like how a book goes through a few weeks of your life with you and becomes swollen with grime and life, and then sits on your bookshelf as a marker to what was happening in your life when you were reading that particular book."
Interviewed in a hotel in Berlin, Mortimer gives every impression that her bibliophilism is genuine and not just put on because she happens to be doing press for a film in which books loom very large. She stars as a widow who opens a bookshop in 1950s Suffolk in Spanish director Isabel Coixet's new feature The Bookshop, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival on Friday.
You would expect Mortimer to know a bit about books. After all, she's an Oxford graduate whose father was the celebrated novelist and lawyer Sir John Mortimer (creator of Rumpole Of The Bailey and author of Paradise Postponed and A Voyage Round My Father) Books were "everywhere" when she was growing up. When she was a kid, her father used to read her Sherlock Holmes, PG Wodehouse and Charles Dickens novels as bedtime stories. She still regards Dickens as her favourite writer. Her father taught her that a book could be "both a comfort and a freedom".
Mortimer and her husband, actor Alessandro Nivola, were regular browsers and buyers at the recently closed Brooklyn bookshop and she wishes passionately it was still there.
In the film (adapted from Penelope Fitzgerald's novel), her character, the homely but still glamorous Florence Green, faces a ferocious battle to keep the bookshop open in the face of opposition led by the devious village matriarch Viola Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), who wants to open an arts centre instead.
In her own life, the Brooklyn shop closed for more prosaic reasons. "It's amazing what a hole it has left," she says. "But the owners just retired. It wasn't that they were chased out by some big chainstore. They just left. It's not a tragic tale but it does feel that there's a gap. There's a line in the book that you're never lonely in a bookshop. There is something about walking into a bookshop that feels like medicine."
Shot in Northern Ireland although set in England, the film appears a cosy, home counties tale but goes on to touch on darker themes. There's a lot of gossiping, plotting and moralising going on. The establishment does all it can to crush the bookseller's dream of running her shop and stocking it with books as subversive as Nabokov's Lolita or Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.
"I love the way that she (Florence the bookshop owner) is very considered about Lolita. She reads it very carefully, and goes off to consult her friends as she tries to decide whether or not she should sell it," says Mortimer.
"To sell Lolita to the masses at that time was a pretty cool, badass thing to do. I think about that book in the context of today and I wonder if that book would even be published. Here is a book about a middle-aged man in a physical relationship with a very underage girl. I think it is important to think that books can sometimes be morally ambiguous, threatening, dangerous and transgressive. That's an important part of what literature offers."
Mortimer also enjoyed the fact that, for once in a movie, the bookshop owner doesn't prevail in all her battles, even if she does have Bill Nighy as an ally. "It's an anti-American dream story. You can try and try and try at something and still fail - which I think is most of our experience of life. Sometimes you win but the beauty and dignity comes from the fight."
Her own career doesn't appear to have had too many setbacks. She has worked with many leading directors and writers, Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island and Hugo) and Aaron Sorkin (on HBO's The Newsroom) among them.
Her credits include plenty of British and US independent films and some very high profile titles too, and there haven't been any noticeable dips.
In 2005, Mortimer co-starred in Woody Allen's Match Point. No, at least for now, she is not going to join the line of former Allen collaborators who have disowned him because of allegations of sexual assault.
"It is such a difficult topic to have a soundbite on," the actress parries. "I feel for people who are asked to provide these kind of short answers in an interview. I felt terrible for Greta Gerwig who was asked about this just after she had won a Best Director award for Lady Bird and should have been being celebrated as the first woman to have won the Best Director thing and then is put on the spot about this. She answered, I think incredibly intelligently, by saying I don't know yet what I think about this and is then pilloried for three days in the press."
This is where her father's influence kicks in. "I believe in due process. I am the daughter of a criminal defence barrister and I think these things really need to go through all the legal processes before anyone can judge. I don't really have an answer to those questions.
"I do believe he is a great artist. And as for the ins and outs, I don't have a position yet." Besides, she adds, she hasn't been asked to be in a Woody Allen film since MatchPoint.
"The dangerous thing about the internet is that there is so much moral certitude," Mortimer continues. "Everybody thinks they're right and that their subjective opinion is an objective one.
"You can only express something in a very simplistic way in 140 or whatever number of characters it is. The minute everybody starts thinking they're right, it is scary to me. In a book, it is not 140 characters but 140 pages or more. Just by the very length of the offering, it is going to be more nuanced. That's where the grey areas of life live; where you'll see things from other people's perspectives and understand life from the point of view of somebody who doesn't necessarily share the same opinions as you do."
Her father brought her up always to see the "paradoxes" in life. In his career as a lawyer, Sir John Mortimer QC defended his share of murderers and supposed crooks. "My father said you can be a good person and kill somebody and you can be a perfectly awful person and never get a parking ticket your whole life."
Not that she shies away from judgement or punishment. If people do "terrible things," they should suffer the consequences. She just prefers the evidence to be weighed properly first.
This year is set to be busy for Mortimer. We will be seeing more of her at the end of 2018 as Jane Banks in one of this year's biggest family films, Disney's Mary Poppins Returns.
Yes, she did meet Dick Van Dyke during shooting. She points out that Van Dyke is not playing cockney everyman Bert this time round. "He's totally brilliant. He's 90-something and is going to outlive us all. He is a Bernie Sanders supporter. He opened for Bernie at many of his rallies," says Mortimer. "He said he was trying to get out the old vote but failed. He was very self-deprecating about it!"
For Mortimer, the film has great significance. "Mary Poppins is part of all of our childhoods," she says.
"Making the film and for people watching the film, it has this incredible nostalgic feeling as it brings back everybody's childhood. From my mother to my daughter, everybody has experienced Mary Poppins growing up and feels very fond of it. It's a big responsibility for all of us, but it couldn't have been in safer hands than with Rob (the film's director).
"I feel very hopeful that it's not going to disappoint."
The Bookshop is screening this week at the Berlin Film Festival and opens in the UK later this year. Mary Poppins Returns is out on December 21