When I ask Emily Mortimer how she's faring with international publicity, which often involves back-to-back phone interviews, for her new film The Bookshop, she assures me this round isn't too gruelling.

"This film is so close to my heart," which, she says, is a blessing. "Often it happens that you can't even remember the name of your character, or the character that you were madly in love with, or any of it, or the names of any of the actors or the director or anything, and you're just like, madly googling the film as you're trying to talk about it on the phone. But that wasn't the case with this –" Mortimer is suddenly interrupted.

"Hang on one second – my little girl – Yes? Yes I'll bring you something. You can take some cookies.

"So sorry," she says. "I've got a house full of kids, and I've got – here, take this – my two kids, who are 14 and 8, both have friends sleeping over so – you can take those cookies – so I've got a house full of children and I'm the only person in charge."

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It's a sweet moment, and it's indicative of Mortimer's generous, apologetic manner. In conversation, she's warmly personable, polite and slightly self-deprecating; she'll preface her answers with sentences like, "I hate to sound sort of like I know anything, really," before delivering an intelligent, thoughtful rumination on life and humanity. And, after the early interruption, it becomes clear that The Bookshop speaks to many themes that resonate with her.

Emily Mortimer: 'This film is so close to my heart'. Photo / supplied
Emily Mortimer: 'This film is so close to my heart'. Photo / supplied

The British actress found her way to the script via her friend – and four-time co-star – Patricia Clarkson. "She had worked with [director] Isabel [Coixet] on Learning to Drive, and she rung me up and said, 'My friend Isabel wants to send you a script, and she's brilliant, and I've never worked with anyone better, and I just beg you to do this film'," she says.

"I met Isabel and I just fell madly in love with her," she continues. "She took me to a Russian restaurant in London, and there was a button by our table that said 'press for Champagne' above it. And indeed whenever you pressed this button, a woman would come with Champagne and pour it for you. And I knew from that moment on that I really had to do this film … I was just like, 'God, this is someone after my own heart.'"

In the film, Mortimer is Florence Green, a quiet widow who decides to set up a bookshop in her tiny town in 1959 England. It's a decision which ruffles the feathers of a powerful few in town – particularly the matriarchal Violet Gamart (Clarkson) – and sparks a ruthless war of small-town politics at a time when England was making sense of a post-war climate.

"It felt like in some ways it was a sort of anti-American dream story," says Mortimer. "You can try and try and try and try at something but you can still fail, and that is very often the experience of our lives.

"Very often, it's hard to do things that you set out to do. But the courage to try, and the courage to keep trying and keep fighting, is the important part."

Bill Nighy and Patricia Clarkson in The Bookshop. Photo / supplied
Bill Nighy and Patricia Clarkson in The Bookshop. Photo / supplied

Central to The Bookshop is the importance of literature – and more broadly, the arts in general – to communities and particularly young people. "Doing this film brought me back to books in a way that felt really like such a relief in this moment," says Mortimer. "I don't know if you're like me, but I feel like most people I know are, where the first thing you reach for in the morning is your phone, and the last thing you look at before you go to bed is your phone. And on your phone is all this certainty… everybody's got an opinion.

"On the one hand that's great and fantastic and exciting and new and extraordinary, and it's affected huge amounts of change, and I think all the #metoo stuff and #timesup stuff has been so propelled by the internet," says Mortimer. "But what sometimes feels anti-art is the certainty. Whether you're on the left or the right, or wherever you may be in your opinions, you tout them as if they're absolutely the only thing … and to me that's scary sometimes.

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"Reading a book is such a relief and such solace, because it's like medicine for the modern age. Books are places where the grey areas in life are gone into, where there's no certainty. You enter into a world and think about it, and get time to ponder it, rather than being just assaulted by an opinion. And also to practise empathy; to get inside the heads of people who aren't like us."

Emily Mortimer carries almost every scene in The Bookshop. Photo / supplied
Emily Mortimer carries almost every scene in The Bookshop. Photo / supplied

Mortimer's performance in The Bookshop is beautifully restrained, with more given to the audience through a slight glance, a gesture, or a flick through a book than through a piece of dialogue. It's a welcome change to see Mortimer carry almost every shot of a film, particularly for an actress who has so often stolen the show with supporting roles in films such as The Party, Shutter Island and Lars and the Real Girl.

When I ask Mortimer whether she shies away from leading roles, she's got a few theories. "I have done a number of leading roles in things, but just those have been the ones that maybe didn't find their way to the big audiences, you know," she says. "I'm always drawn to the script mainly … I don't really pry for size of the role over the thing itself, [it's] just wanting to be part of telling this story.

"But I know what you mean though … I don't naturally assume that sort of role I suppose, I've got a bit of English self-deprecation going on," she says. "Maybe one of the only benefits of getting older is that I will be less shy about that kind of thing. Like, whatever the cringey phrase is, 'take your space' or something, and feel like, well, why not? Why not me? I've definitely suffered a little bit from a feeling of – I guess it's shyness or something.

"I'm a bit like Florence Green in a way, and I've got to try bring out my inner Violet Gamart as I go forward." Mortimer laughs. "F*** it."

LOWDOWN:
Who: Emily Mortimer
What: The Bookshop
When: In cinemas today