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.
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.
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."
It would help to be familiar with "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe" from "The Chronicles of Narnia" series by C.S. Lewis before seeing this film. Fortunately, it's been made into a movie in the meantime, so you don't have to do any actual reading. Of course, whether it's worth seeing that film in order to fully understand this film is up to you. It'd make an interesting double feature.
I should also note that while C.S. Lewis' work is Christian-themed, this movie based on actual events is not; in fact, it takes a few well-deserved shots at the vapidity of his writing.
As I've mentioned many times, I absolutely adore the work of C.S. Lewis, from his priceless Narnia novels to his meditations of the Christian faith. He is my favorite author and one of the most fascinating human beings I've ever researched. One of the most fascinating aspects of his life was his late marriage to a woman named Joy Gresham. I find this delightfully ironic considering the fact that not too long before they met Lewis had written a book about his conversion to Christianity called Surprised By Joy. So, when I discovered that a film had been made about C.S. Lewis and his wife I naturally had to see it.
Shadowlands stars the tremendous Anthony Hopkins as Lewis, and the equally excellent Debra Winger as Joy. It is directed by Richard Attenborough, who having directed this and Gandhi seems to have quite a flair for bio-pics. Hopkins, in appearance, hardly resembles the late Lewis at all, but his portrayel of Lewis' speech, character, and well-known manner is simply flawless. He is so utterly believeable that I actually forgot I was watching Hopkins during the film.
The film is about Lewis, a bachelor into his 60s, meeting a fan and pen pal named Joy, an American. She is married and with a son, but her marriage is to an abusive man and will soon end. Lewis and Joy are merely friends for a while, as Lewis likes to keep it. One must understand that Lewis never intended to marry and was very guarded about ideas like romance.
Joy comes to England on two occasions, once to visit Lewis and the next time to get away from her now ex-husband. She wishes to stay in England, but is not a citizen. She and Lewis decide to marry, but this is a marriage of convenience, not love. Lewis, as her friend, is offering his citizenship to her so that she may remain in the country. They do not even marry in the presence of a minister, because Lewis believes this not to be a marriage before God. They do not live together and still only see each other the way friends would on occasion. This soon changes.
Joy is soon diagnosed with terminal cancer after an accident in which her leg snaps like a branch. Lewis goes to be with her and take care of her, and soon he realizes that he will soon be without her. This understanding overwhelms him, but helps him to realize that he truly loves her. She has, in all likelyhood, loved him even longer. There, in the hospital, the marry again, this time before God, as true husband and wife.
They know their time together will be short-lived, but they make the most of it. The great triumph in this film is that of Lewis' heart being overtaken by a love he had avoided for so long. It is believed in Christianity that marriage is a picture of God's love for an individual (or the church in general), and to see Lewis finally embrace it and tenderly cling to it in his wife is so beautiful to watch, and so utterly heartbreaking when it inevitably ends.
Shadowlands is a remarkably romantic film, and a very heartbreaking one. The performances by all are top notch, and the approach to the material is brilliant. Hopkins has had many excellent roles, none so iconic as Hannibal Lector, but this may be his next best, and yet it seems to be relatively unknown and therefore hardly appreciated.
You don't have to love romantic movies to appreciate this excellent film, because it isn't like the fodder we see today. The love displayed in this film is of a much deeper and more realistic kind. I've always held to the belief that love is far more about action than feelings, and it is so refreshing to see a film that honors that very thing.
Sorry about my tangent of praise, but this really is an amazing movie.