Adapted from – or two – from Nancy Drew, Miss Marple and, lest we forget, Harry Potter, Miss Willoughby and the Haunted Bookshop (sometimes advertised as simply Miss Willoughby) is the first film that the filmmakers undoubtedly hope will be a full-fledged film franchise.
The title character, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Willoughby, is played by young Scarlett Graham and adult Nathalie Cox. Orphaned at a young age, Lizzie becomes the ward of her father’s military sidekick, American expatriate Robert Thompson (Kelsey Grammar). Under Robert’s tutelage, she studies chess and literature to hone her intellectual acumen, and boxing and martial arts to hone her physical acumen. All of this will, of course, prove very useful in their subsequent investigations.
Comfortably housed in Robert’s country house, Lizzie is a college lecturer, published author, and amateur detective. Her deductive skills are put to the test when she is contacted by an old friend, Helen Deakin (Louise Bangay), the owner of a cozy bookshop in central London. The store has been beset by strange occurrences, leading an increasingly agitated Helen to believe her shop is being haunted.
Whatever dark and terrible forces are at work, Lizzie is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, aided and abetted by faithful Robert. Redemptions and potential suspects abound, but Lizzie – played by Cox with cool firmness – refuses to be distracted or swayed.
Unlike Nancy Drew or Harry Potter – or Sherlock Holmes, by the way – Miss Willoughby is an original, not based on a book or graphic novel. It’s competent, picturesque and set in a contemporary Britain that only seems to exist in movies. Guessing the culprit — or in this case, who is doing it — isn’t difficult, and for a film that advertises itself as family-friendly, themes like adultery, kidnapping, and attempted murder can alarm kids rather than entertain them. (The film is rated PG, which is reasonable.)
Grammar comfortably settles into mentor mode as Robert, doling out compassion and wisdom at regular intervals. Tara Fitzgerald gleefully plays the snooty society matron, Steven Elder plays Helen’s husband in an overtly edgy way, Nicholas Jones plays a crusty but lovable professor who plays affectionately with Lizzie, and the strapping Wayne Gordon plays the handsome detective inspector who might well be , film should generate follow-ups, be a potential romantic interest for our intrepid heroine. But it’s Graham who shines in her brief appearance as Young Lizzie in her feature film debut as Young Lizzie. In fact, she’s so good you almost wish there were flashbacks to further enhance her role.
Directed by Brad Watson (who also edited the film) Miss Willoughby and the Haunted Bookshop Time flies easily enough, but should there be a sequel, there’s certainly room for improvement, not to mention character expansion.
— Miss Willoughby and the Haunted Bookshop is available in Digital, On Demand and DVD ($19.98 retail) from LionsGate Home Entertainment.