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Shadowlands Reviews

Page 1 of 33
Daniel Mumby
Daniel Mumby

Super Reviewer

November 15, 2010
If Alfred Hitchcock is the archetypal auteur, and Robert Altman is the ultimate actors' director, then Richard Attenborough is the consummate luvvie. Attenborough's career is that of someone so impassioned by acting and filmmaking that it leaches into every aspect of his craft, both in front of and behind the camera. Sometimes, as with Chaplin or moments in A Bridge Too Far, this passion becomes overbearing and compromises the integrity of what we are seeing. But sometimes, as with Shadowlands, it may be the thing which makes all the difference.

Taken at face value, Shadowlands could almost have been a Woody Allen film: its central relationship is a late-blooming romance between an elderly, shy, somewhat neurotic man and an inquisitive, playful younger woman. It is also a textbook weepy, being a story which is rooted in tragedy and which will have you in tears by the end. But while it doesn't deviate massively from either mould, there is much about Shadowlands which is intriguing and stimulating.

For all the times when he has over-egged things, Attenborough does know how to assemble a top-notch cast, who sit in their parts like they were the only people who could possibly play them. Anthony Hopkins has a head start in this due to his experiences with Merchant Ivory, but even so he inhabits C. S. Lewis like no-one before or since. His accent may still be a Port Talbot brogue rather than a clipped Cambridge twang, and there are moments in which he is rather theatrical. But he remains utterly convincing and completely endearing to an audience.

The theatrical moments of the film are not especially problematic either, for two reasons. Firstly, and perhaps obviously, it is adapted by William Nicholson from his original play. Because it is a direct adaptation by the same author, you can readily understand that the tone would be broadly similar, so that all the little flourishes which would occur on stage are captured and compressed on screen. But secondly, this is not problematic because the film does not feel stagey. Unlike Plenty, which tried to disguise its theatrical roots through clunky camera tricks, Shadowlands feels broadly cinematic and therefore when the moments of theatricality come, they do not disrupt proceedings too greatly.

Be that as it may, the film is guilty of one cardinal sin of stage-to-screen adaptations - namely that there are too many locations. There is a lot of travelogue footage in Shadowlands with the camera following our characters as tiny dots on a variety of landscapes, whether it's the hills of Herefordshire or the resplendent halls of Cambridge University. The film jumps from location to location a good deal more than it needs to, in an attempt to seem more epic, ambitious and by contrived extension cinematic. It doesn't quite fall into the trap of assuming that bigger scale equals better story, but on a number of occasions it comes perilously close.

The comparison between Shadowlands and Plenty goes beyond the technical accomplishments of the former. Both films approach the issues of routine and domesticity, and both feature women who don't fit into the very orderly, male-dominated world which is put before them. But what makes Shadowlands the more compelling is the dynamic of the central relationship, which in both films determines our ultimate response to the story.

In Plenty, Meryl Streep's character is essentially passive-aggressive: she wants to change the world but not at the expense of moaning about how difficult her life is. This makes it more difficult for us to identify with her consistently, and we end up feeling sorry for Charles Dance having to put up with her. In the world of Susan Traherne, domesticity is a menace from which nothing productive or meaningful can emerge, and once a person has entered it their life is effectively worthless. Shadowlands is a lot more subtle and welcoming, with the settled nature of its characters serving as a springboard from which pure emotion can emerge. The need for Lewis and Joy Gresham to challenge each other, both personally and intellectually, gives us both a compelling drama and hope that we have not yet past our respective sell-by dates.

The great success of Shadowlands is its balance of the personal and the intellectual. The film raises a great number of fascinating theological questions to do with pain, suffering and the loss of childlike innocence, but it does not approach such questions with all the esoteric dryness of a Bible commentary. There is a rich vein of substance in the film which can be absorbed and will result in deep discussions afterwards. But the film can also be enjoyed purely as a romance, because its ideas are conveyed through characters we can relate to and conversations we can recognise.

Much of the film is a debate about the role of suffering in human life - "the purpose of pain", as Lewis would put it. The film isn't afraid to confront this old chestnut of Christianity head-on, questioning the role of God in the events which transpire, both good and bad. Lewis is not immune from theological doubt, and is troubled so deeply by the loss of Joy that he erupts uncharacteristically when his academic friends try to comfort him. The early part of the film sees Lewis 'talking the talk' about pain and suffering, delivering lectures with an expression of sanguine satisfaction. But as the action moves on it becomes a film about 'walking the walk', putting Lewis' theories into practice and showing to what extent they bring comfort.

What makes Shadowlands so compelling as a religious or theological film is that there are no easy answers to any of the questions it raises. Joy criticises Lewis for his style of inquiry, quipping that "every time you ask a question, you know the answer already". The film is quite the opposite, neither giving a watertight theological explanation nor settling for a sentimental cop-out. We have to come to our own conclusions about where (if anywhere) morality lies, and whether Lewis was right to believe that God could still be at work in the midst of such tragedy. His passing words, that the pain of losing Joy is part of the deal of having a full life, leaves us hanging in the best possible way as we question our own attitude towards the Almighty.

If anything, though, the central theme of Shadowlands is not whether pain is a justifiable part of life. It is mainly a film about openness, about baring one's soul and constantly questioning one's opinion of how the universe operates. The Narnia books are all about discovering and exploring fantastical new worlds, and yet Lewis himself a reluctant adventurer. His lecture on pain and suffering, which characterises God as a sculptor with a chisel, is repeated several times to show how he is set in his ways, whether by choice or unconsciously. The arrival of Joy is the beginning of a long period of questioning, which results both in deep sorrow and in levels of joy which he had never experienced before. As he says to Joy as she lies dying, "you've made me so happy... I didn't know I could be so happy."

Shadowlands is a very moving film and may be Attenborough's best work, being tauter than Gandhi and more disciplined than Chaplin. Hopkins and Debra Winger anchor the film with convincing, understated performances, supported ably by Edward Hardwicke as Warney and Joseph Mazzello as Douglas. It isn't without its little problems, and it is too conventional in places, but as a piece it holds together and you find yourself getting swept up in the story. More than anything, this is a film made by someone with general affection for both the story and the characters, and it is made so well that a great deal of that affection is reflected back.

Super Reviewer

July 28, 2007
Another beautiful true story of a famous personage -- the neat thing that the son actually helped on this movie!

Super Reviewer

July 14, 2007
Romantic moving about CS Lewis and his American divorcee. CS Lewis was from my hometown.
John B

Super Reviewer

March 17, 2014
Hopkins gives us a wonderful portrait of a believer who is forced to confront his faith when a partner becomes terminally ill.
Theta Sigma
Theta Sigma

Super Reviewer

January 18, 2011
To tie in with the release of The Chronicles Of Narnia:The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader, I thought that I'd write a review of this film which charts the relationship between C.S. Lewis and Joy Gresham.

At the start of the film, we are introduced to C.S. Lewis (known throughout the majority of the film as Jack) in his role as a Professor at Magdalen College in Oxford. His life is well-ordered to the traditions of college life, he shares a house with his brother, Warnie, he does speaking engagements for local organisations and he relishes the challenge of his views and work by his colleagues and students.

His lifestyle is disturbed by a letter from an American, Joy Gresham, who admires his work and asks to meet him.

So starts a relationship which causes Jack to open up his emotions through a friendship with both Joy and her son, Douglas, a marriage of convenience to enable Joy to stay in England, a marriage for love on Joy's diagnosis of cancer and the tragedy of her loss.

Among Richard Attenborough's body of work including classics such as Gandhi and Chaplin, Shadowlands appears to be one that is overlooked. His direction is perfect and along with William Nicholson's script, based on his original stage play, is a study of Jack Lewis the man, rather C.S. Lewis the author. It is also a study of friendship, love and the pain of loss. Given the storyline, it is tender, tragic and, in some respects, uplifting.

Anthony Hopkins portrays Lewis as a multi-faceted character. You get the formal and aloof Professor who challenges his colleagues and students, who becomes the man who befriends and falls in love, the man who is deeply affected by the loss of the love of his life, and finally, the man who chooses to rebuild his life following Joy's passing.

Debra Winger is an equal match to Hopkins in the role of Gresham. Through the script and her performance, Winger is enabled to craft a character who playfully challenges Jack through her friendship and love for him and the apparent pomposity of the Oxford college system, as seen in a brilliant scene at a college Christmas party. Winger also portrays the scenes involving Gresham's cancer with dignity and shows the effects of her character without her character appearing weak.

The supporting cast is also of a high standard including the likes of Julian Fellowes, Peter Firth and Michael Dennison and John Wood. However, I would like to single out two single out two performances among the supporting cast - The first actor is Edward Hardwicke (better known as Granada Television's Doctor Watson to Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes) as Warnie Lewis presents a character who not only playfully mocks Jack and his potential friendship with Joy in the earlier scenes, but also serves as the warm "uncle" role to Douglas and becomes Jack's voice of reason when Jack becomes burdened by his grief for Joy.

The second actor is Joseph Mazzello, known at the time for Jurassic Park and more recently in the HBO series, The Pacific. His performance as Douglas Gresham conveys the magic of childhood, especially in the scene when he examines Lewis' wardrobe to see if there is a gateway to Narnia and the grief of a child who loses his parent without being either maudling or saccharin.

If you are expecting lots of references to the Narnia books, you may be disappointed. As I said earlier in the review, this film is very much about Jack Lewis rather than C.S. Lewis, his relationship with Joy and a study of friendship, love and loss.

I am not afraid to admit that I was affected by this film, both through the sadness of the storyline and, postively, through the message delivered by Hopkins at the film's conclusion which encapsulates not only the themes of the film and, perhaps, all of our lives.

Super Reviewer

February 22, 2009
Follows the true story of C.S. Lewis' relationship with Joy Gresham closely, with no better choice than Anthony Hopkins for the lead role, who brings Lewis life. Successfully mixes emotion and intellect, along with a great deal of humour, energy, and life.
April 25, 2013
"Why love if losing hurt so much. I have no answers anymore, only the life I have lived. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That's the deal."

Shadowlands deploys a deep magic. The magic at the heart of love. Shadowlands employes power through, Anthony Hopkins preformance, the amazing and biting script, and the dark shadows of love.

"Why love if losing hurt so much. I have no answers anymore, only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I've been given the choice. As a boy and as a man. The boy choose safety, the man chooses suffering.The pain now is part of the happiness then. That's the deal."
June 8, 2008
it was great. it gave mii a good idea bout the life of Clive "jack" lewis & with his logic & walk w/ christ.
August 20, 2007
A very well done movie about C.S. Lewis, and the woman he met and fell in love with, despite the fact that she was dying of cancer.
August 11, 2007
One of my all time favorites. I've only seen it once, but C.S. Lewis could only be played by someone like Hopkins.
July 6, 2007
Great truths, great backstory of C.S. Lewis (author of Mere Christianity and the Chronicles of Narnia). Not about his books but about his personal life. Poignant.
May 8, 2007
I get this thing a lot with movies. The thing is, I can't describe it. It's like if I get this certain feeling and I can't describe it, I either describe it by saying I don't remember it or I didn't get it, and sometimes it's not either of them. I think it just left me with a blah I'm-not-sure-about-this feeling. I guess. It's very hard to describe. And I'm sure that was very hard to understand. I'm not sure if I DID get the movie, though.
April 30, 2007
What a quietly beautiful journey of the soul this is. A movie about love and faith. "The pain now is part of the happiness then; that's the deal."
April 27, 2007
I can't get through this movie dry-eyed. I dearly love CS Lewis and Anthony Hopkins playing him was a dream. Occasional made-for-TV-movie moments, but not overwhelming. Beautiful, sad, and just plain wonderful.
March 23, 2007
Makes me cry... I haven't seen it in a while though. I've grown a bit more questioning about these sappy love stories.
July 31, 2006
The only thing missing is the hope that Jack experienced after Joy's death, because of his faith in Christ. But, I didn't really expect Hollywood to show The Whole Story. Still, this has one of my fave scenes in it, a brief encounter Joy has with a few stuffy, rude professors and she puts one in his place.
June 25, 2006
Well... there is is. I can't say that I liked it all that much. It was not very believable. Plus, it was just weird, I kept thinking Anthony Hopkins was going to eat her!
June 4, 2006
Yes. Yes, yes, yes. I watched this one day after watching Luther, another film about a man instrumental to the Christian faith. Well, maybe C. S. Lewis isn't exactly INSTRUMENTAL to the Christian faith, but I know his books were very much a help to my dad's faith, as well as many, many other Christians. However, this movie succeeded where Luther failed. True, this was more of a relational movie, not so much a "quest-for-Christ" movie. But in this, the characters felt warmer, the people felt realer... Everything just FELT good. Even the sad ending felt good. The scene where Lewis and Douglas sit in the attic sobbing felt like one of the most real portrayals of pain that I've seen in a long time. This movie also has a fantastic sense of humor to it (Luther doesn't). In many ways it felt to me like Finding Neverland, one of my favorites of the year - a list, by the way, which this movie will definitely be added to.
September 13, 2014
I have been trying to find this movie to rent or buy. I was enthralled by it when it came our years ago. Hopkins and Winger are a wonderful match in this sweet, sad romance.
December 25, 2013
not as good as the PBS story which is more accurate about Lewis' life
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