Pain is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world; the blows of His chisel, which hurt us so much, make us perfect.—C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis, perhaps one of the most fascinating writers and thinkers of the 20th century, is brought to life in this thoughtful, intimate film from acclaimed director Sir Richard Attenborough (In Love And War, Chaplin, Gandhi).
Facts of the Case
When we first meet C.S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins—Silence of the Lambs, Titus, The Bounty) he is quite happy in his life as a middle-aged bachelor and professor of literature at Oxford. His life revolves around his academic pursuits, his small circle of friends, and his brother Warnie (Edward Hardwicke—The Scarlet Letter, Elizabeth, Richard III) with whom he shares a house. "Jack" Lewis, as he prefers to be called, is also a theologian and lecturer, traveling around Britain and the world preaching his views on the essential nature of the relationship between God and man. He is also a respected writer, having written numerous theological works as well as a whimsical fantasy series for children, packed with biblical allegory—The Chronicles of Narnia. It is this last that attracts the attention of one Joy Gresham (Debra Winger—An Officer and a Gentleman, Terms Of Endearment, Forget Paris), an American poet and divorcee with a young son named Douglas. Joy brings a new life and new perspective to Lewis's world, and he begins a deepening friendship with her. He even agrees to a sham civil marriage to protect her UK immigration status. Due to his deep faith in God he is able to explain away this marriage, enacted by a judge, as a mere legal technicality; real marriage to him is a sacred union that can not be bestowed by mere secular authority. Still, we wonder if Lewis isn't in a bit of denial about the growing bond between himself and this much younger, much more boisterous woman.
Their relationship is put to the test when Joy falls ill. The diagnosis is cancer. Lewis, realizing that he loves this woman more than anything else in the world, decides to marry her for real, in an actual Christian wedding ceremony. His love for her and the need to care for her bring out qualities in his character that he never knew existed, as he explores the true nature of pain, and of love.
The above plot description fails to adequately describe Shadowlands, because this film is not about the events that move the story from point A to point B. Rather, it is a portrait of C.S. Lewis the man, captured on film instead of on canvas. It is a story of love, pain, faith, and one man's experiences uniting them. While Shadowlands could have been just another trite "cancer flick," it rises above that status due to two essential ingredients. The first is the rich intellectual legacy of C.S. Lewis. The film is very careful to give an accurate accounting of the man and all his intellectual heft. Lewis is presented to us as a complex character, a writer and teacher very comfortable in his staid, ivory tower world. It is interesting to note that Lewis, formidable as he is, fancies himself the most adventurous and carefree of his circle of even stodgier friends. When Joy Gresham enters his life it is as though he himself has taken his first few tentative, shy steps through the magical wardrobe into a whole new world. The rich picture of C.S. Lewis the man gives the film a philosophical and spiritual weight that most films with similar plotlines could only dream of. I also found it noteworthy and a pleasant surprise that the makers of the film did not downplay Lewis's religious faith, nor assert that it was empty or something to be discarded once he had found love.
The second essential ingredient is in some ways inseparable from the first. Anthony Hopkins gives an incredibly thoughtful, loving portrayal of Lewis that no other actor in the world could hope to match. Hopkins seems to understand Lewis better than Lewis might have understood himself. He captures a sense of a Lewis who starts out fully comfortable in a world of his own making, who then experiences the simultaneous joy and fear that comes when his world is completely rearranged by this forthright, outspoken American woman.
Shadowlands also benefits from an excellent performance by Debra Winger as Joy Gresham. I was a bit worried when she first appeared on screen, because it seemed that the character was to be the typical pushy, know-it-all ugly American, complete with an irritating (and irritatingly fake) New York accent. Much like Lewis, we do not know exactly what to make of Gresham at first, but gradually she wins us over with her sometimes awkward sincerity, and a real vulnerability under her strong exterior. Winger was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role, and it's not hard to see why. She knows exactly how to be tough without being shrill or brittle, and how to be vulnerable without seeming weak. Her presence on screen is a striking counterpoint to Hopkins, and when we see them together it seems remarkably similar to what people seeing the real-life Gresham and Lewis together must have experienced.
Shadowlands makes its appearance on DVD courtesy of HBO Home Video. The video transfer is good but not great. Starting with the opening credits we see some serious strobing, but the scene quickly opens on a glorious sunrise revealed in all its natural wonder. The image is quite grainy in places, but does a good job of showing fine details. There is some occasional moiré and aliasing evident, but nothing too serious. Edges and textures can be a bit soft and hazy at times. On the other hand, color depth and fidelity is excellent. Reds, blacks, and flesh tones are right on the mark. It's not a perfect transfer, and lacks anamorphic enhancement, but overall is satisfactory. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, which is a bit surprising for an intimate, character-driven story.
The audio mix is Dolby Digital 5.1. It is adequate to the task, but nothing spectacular. This is a very dialogue-heavy film, with no explosions or fighter jets or car chases to give your system a workout. Rather, the use of the surround channels is quite effective in its subtlety, used mostly for music or the ambient sounds of Lewis's staid surroundings at Oxford. If I have one complaint with the audio it is that the all-important dialogue comes across a bit muffled or pinched from time to time.
Extra features on this disc are somewhat limited, but are of good quality. There is a behind the scenes featurette running about 5:50, featuring director Sir Richard Attenborough. This featurette is primarily made up of the usual talking-head clips, people giving their impressions of their characters and so forth, but feels a lot deeper and more insightful than most featurettes of this kind. Also provided are interview clips with Hopkins, Winger, screenwriter William Nicholson, and C.S. Lewis's stepson Douglas Grisham. Each person is given two to three minutes to talk about their involvement in the film in a bit more depth. The real treat here is the interview with Grisham, who is able to speak from personal experience about the relationship between his mother Joy and Lewis. Rounding out the extra content is a collection of five cast and crew biographies.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Shadowlands is perhaps not for everyone. The story, such as it is, seems at times to move at a glacial pace. Those expecting fiery discourses or steamy passions had best look elsewhere; this is a warm, affectionate, personal look at Lewis and Gresham.
Shadowlands defies classification. It is a philosophical tearjerker, a poignant romance for the intellectual set, and a touching character study. It left me feeling very grateful. I was grateful for the opportunity to let such a beautiful film wash over me for two hours, and I was grateful for the reminder that wonderful personalities like C.S. Lewis exist in our world, or at least existed at one time.
All concerned are declared Not Guilty, and are released with the thanks of the court.
We stand adjourned.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
• Behind the Scenes Featurette
Review content copyright © 2002 Erick Harper; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.