Shadowlands (United Kingdom, 1993)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"What was [Joy] to me? She was my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign; and always, holding all these in solution, my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow-soldier. My mistress; but at the same time all that any man friend (and I have good ones) has ever been to me. Perhaps more. If we had never fallen in love we should have none the less been always together, and created a scandal."
- C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

One of England's most admired scholars and authors of the middle of the twentieth century, C. S. Lewis is known for a wide variety of literature, including a science fiction trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength), a fantasy saga (The Chronicles of Narnia), and a number of works as a Christian apologist, most notably The Screwtape Letters, The Allegory of Love, Mere Christianity, and A Grief Observed. Born in Northern Ireland in 1898, Lewis lived almost his entire live in the British Isles, dying in Oxford on November 22, 1963.

Lewis, known as Jack to his friends (having never liked his given name, Clive), met Joy Davidman Gresham in 1952. The two had corresponded for some time when Joy arrived in England to escape the strain of a collapsing marriage. Over the next several years, Lewis and Joy met several times, developing and strengthening a friendship. After her divorce from her husband, she and her two young sons came to live in London, and when the government refused to renew Joy's residency permit in 1956, Lewis married her "in name only", so she could stay. Early in 1957, Joy was diagnosed as having advanced cancer, and while she lay in her hospital bed, Lewis confessed his love, and the pair were subsequently married in a religious ceremony. When Joy's cancer went into remission, she was allowed to accompany Lewis home, where they spent two happy years as man and wife until her death in 1959.

Richard Attenborough's Shadowlands stays remarkably close to the true story of C.S. Lewis' relationship with Joy Gresham, taking only occasional liberties with the material for reasons of pacing, not over-sentimentalization. Joy's two sons are "combined" into a single boy, young Douglas (Joseph Mazzello). The film ignores Lewis' professorship at Cambridge, preferring instead to keep him at Oxford, and Joy's final days are shown spent at Lewis' house rather than in a hospital.

It's hard to imagine a better choice than Anthony Hopkins for the lead role. Chad Walsh, one of Lewis' close associates, described his friend this way: "In manner, he was straight to the point. He was not given to the sort of chitchat that simply fills in time, though in some moods he could delight in a battle of verbal wit... To him, an ideal conversation was an intellectual fencing match, and may the man with the best dialectic win. The few times I crossed swords with him, he won. I also noticed that he seemed singularly uninterested in introspection." This is the C.S. Lewis that Hopkins brings to life; the man that we follow from beginning to end in Shadowlands.

This performance also gives audiences a chance to see a gifted actor run the gamut of emotions, from disbelieving joy to tortured grief. Hopkins never had the chance to express himself the way he does here in either Howards End or The Remains of the Day. In many ways, it's as difficult - if not moreso - to give a genuine presentation of heartfelt emotions than it is to convey their repression. In Shadowlands, Hopkins gains this opportunity for release. Sit back, watch a master at work, and never once believe that you're not observing the real C.S. Lewis.

It's hard not to be eclipsed when playing opposite Hopkins, but Debra Winger avoids being swallowed in his shadow. She brings a gritty worldliness to Joy Gresham that compliments perfectly Lewis' intellectual spirituality. Where he is reserved, she is frank and honest, going so far to remark to a friend of Lewis', "Are you trying to be offensive, or just merely stupid?"

Best of all is the chemistry between Winger and Hopkins. There is no smouldering sensuality, but they seem very much like a real couple, and there is no phase of their relationship that doesn't strike a true chord. Richard Attenborough knows how to keep the film's tone appropriate to the subject matter, and the scenes flow together naturally. The supporting cast, although with far less screen time than the principals, is excellent. Edward Hardwicke, best known to American viewers as one of two Watsons in Grenada TV's Sherlock Holmes mysteries, gives a solid portrayal as Lewis' elder brother, Warnie. Joseph Mazzello's Douglas introduces us to yet another impressive child actor (this was filmed before Jurassic Park, which gave Mazzello worldwide exposure).

As proven by Gandhi, Attenborough is a master of biographical storytelling. The failing of Chaplin - attempting to cover an entire life in a two-plus hour film - is avoided here, making Shadowlands an immensely satisfying, and emotionally rich, motion picture. This is a rare tearjerker that rejects manipulation at every level, instead relying upon narrative and character.

The initial impression of Shadowlands presented equally by its creative team and title, may be one of somber austerity, but there is a great deal of humor, energy, and life to be discovered beyond the drizzly, often-dreary Oxford landscape. The photography is beautiful, but rarely do green vistas upstage the actors.

To be captivated by Shadowlands, it isn't necessary to have read Lewis' writings. The story is self-contained, and William Nicholson's screenplay (adapted by the author from his own stage play) brings characters and situations into bas-relief. The tapestry of this film successfully weaves together emotion, intellect, and narrative into a pleasing, but never cloying, whole.

Shadowlands (United Kingdom, 1993)

Ranked #3 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1994
Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 1993-12-29
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1