Richard Attenborough, a fine actor, has spent much of his directorial career straining for the epic. This concerted striving has tended to be all too evident and all too often, in films such as Gandhi and Chaplin, the sheer effort of using such a big canvas is the only thing that comes across. It’s a crowning irony therefore that the only time he’s managed to hit the true stuff of epics – an emotional journey that cuts deep into our own experience – with his smallest, most intimate film. Shadowlands is Attenborough’s finest work by a country mile. It’s fiercely intelligent, gorgeously photographed and acted with the kind of brilliance which only twelve years ago we were beginning to take for granted in British cinema. A decade on, British cinema has declined to the point where we are pathetically grateful for whatever scraps we’re offered until Mike Leigh or Ken Loach decide to make their next film. In this context, Shadowlands looks even better. I think it’s a small masterpiece.
The story of C.S. ‘Jack’ Lewis (Hopkins), the Oxford don turned philosopher and children’s writer, and his late flowering love for an American divorcee named Joy Gresham (Winger) has been told in two books, a TV film and a stage play. Both Joss Ackland and Nigel Hawthorne distinguished themselves in the role of Lewis and eyebrows were raised when both actors were passed over for the film in favour of Anthony Hopkins. But in the event, any reservations were unnecessary because Hopkins is quite brilliant in the part. It’s a particularly challenging role for him because it’s very different from any of his previous work. In 1992 he had won the Best Actor Oscar for Silence of the Lambs, his rich slice of ham as Hannibal Lector having already won the hearts of audiences around the world. He followed up by playing the immensely difficult role of Henry Wilcox in Howard’s End, one of the most quietly despicable characters in 20th Century fiction, and Stevens the butler in The Remains of the Day, where his restrained underplaying won him unbounded praise. I don’t think Hopkins has ever done anything better than the scene in which you sense how badly he wants to touch Emma Thompson when she has him backed into a corner of the room or the final sequence on the rain-sodden pier when he sits, mutely heartbroken and consumed by impossible love. But as C.S. Lewis, he has to do something very tricky. Although Lewis isn’t as emotionally sealed-off as Stevens, he is afflicted by a very English sense of emotional restraint which has suggested to him that anything such as sex or love or passion is to remain a closed book to him.
But he’s also required to suggest the possibility of all three so that when they are suddenly aroused, the effect isn’t completely jarring. The development from ironic detachment to intense involvement is beautifully achieved by Hopkins and he is so moving during the last half hour, when Joy is dying, that many viewers who came to scoff have stayed to weep.
Debra Winger has an easier role because Joy Gresham is a brash, outspoken American women who could never hope to seal off emotions because they are the very things which define her. But Winger is a magnificent actress at her best – it’s worth emphasising this because she’s done barely any work in the past few years and it’s easy to forget that she was among the finest actresses of the 1980s. She isn’t afraid to make Joy unsympathetic and difficult and it’s the corners that she gives to the character which make her interesting. There’s a great sequence where she has to ask Lewis to undergo a civil marriage ceremony and both of them are skirting around their real emotions like boxers at the beginning of a bout. She is also beautiful enough to give Joy a glow, one which is vitally important for the plot. Lewis’s love for Joy is at first a spiritual rather than a physical one – Lewis has already consigned physical love to the scrapheap of mundane bodily desire – and Winger renders Joy’s spirit visible.
There’s something schematic about the film of course and it’s this which perhaps makes it less perfect than it could have been. It’s inherent in the subject matter. Joy exists to give meaning to Lewis’ lectures on the subject of worldly pain which have been rendered banal by endless repetition. Lewis doesn’t really understand what he means by statements such as “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world” or “I don’t think God particularly wants us to be happy” until experience forces him to consider the underlying implications of both. Repeated references to Lewis’ determination to win every (intellectual) battle he begins seem to exist in the film solely to underline his one defeat at the hands of Joy’s cancer. If this were a manufactured Hollywood romance then we might consider such things unforgivable machinations by an opportunistic, clever screenwriter. But the more you read about C. S. Lewis, both in his own books and in Brian Sibley’s book about his relationship with Joy, the more you realise that the conscious ironies in the film are actually true. After 1960, Lewis’ own philosophy becomes more complex, more consumed with doubts and terror and as interested in the subject of love as with the difficulties of equating the existence of pain and evil with a loving God. If one were to be pedantic, the inaccuracies in the depiction of true events should also be pointed out – principally that Lewis left Oxford in 1955 and went to Cambridge and that Joy had two sons and not one.
But this is a fictionalised film and not a documentary. While the changes to reality may be irritating, they are far from disastrous because the film is emotionally true. Richard Attenborough has numerous faults as a filmmaker but he has an unusual capacity to depict moral and emotional confusion – as he displayed in the best scene of A Bridge Too Far when Browning is confronted by Roy Urquhart at the end - and he uses this to devastating effect in the sequences where Lewis is forced to reconsider all his platitudes about Christianity and, later, when he has to talk to Douglas, his stepson played by Joseph Mazzello, after Joy has died. But Attenborough relies heavily on his collaborators, particularly the actors, his DP and his scriptwriter. In Shadowlands he is fortunate in all three. Roger Pratt’s cinematography is gorgeous throughout – he’s the wizard who performs wonders in the recently released Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - and William Nicholson’s third bash at this material has refined it into a narrative which is simple but emotionally complex. The supporting cast is superbly well chosen, full of actors who can evoke a character with little more than a glance, but Edward Hardwicke deserves to be singled out. Hardwicke is an actor who has been doing good things for years without getting the kudos he deserves – along with Andre Morell, he was the perfect Dr Watson – and his characterisation of Warnie, Lewis’ brother, is sheer delight.
When I say that Shadowlands is a small masterpiece, I am in danger of setting up false expectations. I use the phrase because, on its own limited terms, it’s just about perfect and I can’t imagine it being done better. The acting is miraculous, the pacing is suitably slow without being dull and there are scenes which are so moving that its impossible not to be affected by them. In the key sequence of the film, when Joy and Lewis travel into the country during her brief period of remission, Attenborough captures the whole message of the film – that human happiness, brief as it may be, is a combination of all experience, both positive and adverse- Lewis says at the end of the film, "Twice in that life, I've been given the choice. As a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That's the deal." To capture spirituality on film is quite an achievement, one which has eluded many better directors, and for Attenborough to do so deserves a great deal of praise.
I’ve been waiting for Shadowlands to come along on R2 for a while – it was a big hit in UK cinemas back in 1994 – and Paramount’s new DVD serves it quite well. The film looks gorgeous in anamorphic 2.35:1. Rich and vivid colours predominate with the various tones and hues coming across very distinctively – brown for the colleges, verdant greens and blues for the countryside and so on. There’s plenty of detail and no problems with excessive grain. Print damage is very slightly evident in places along with a very small amount of artifacting during the mistier scenes. But overall, it looks very nice indeed. The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack replicates the original recording and sounds excellent. George Fenton’s score, reticent for the most part and then flooding with emotion at key points, comes across very well and the dialogue is always clear.
There are no extras at all – a shame considering how fond Richard Attenborough is of talking about his work. Optional English subtitles are provided.
Last updated: 20/06/2018 04:22:16