MOVIE REVIEWS : Romance Emerges From the ‘Shadowlands’ : Richard Attenborough’s film about the archetypal Oxford don C. S. Lewis and devoted reader Joy Gresham telegraphs its moves--but still moves us.
“Shadowlands” (at the AMC Santa Monica and AMC Fine Arts) is about the romance between S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins) and Joy Gresham (Debra Winger), and it’s the kind of high-class weepie that titrates its tears one by one. It solemnizes heartbreak as it creeps from one emotional revelation to the next. Nothing happens in this film that isn’t prepared for, and that’s part of its plodding power. It works on us through its lack of surprise.
Lewis--known to his friends as Jack--is a lifelong bachelor who lives in quaint comfort with his brother Warnie (Edward Hardwicke). Initially he is presented to us as the archetypal Oxford don. He wears his learning like a thick robe, and delights in the life of the mind--particularly his mind.
He taunts and prods his students and delivers popular lectures on Christianity with a self-assured swagger. Jack, we are made to understand, has created a life for himself that bars any real pain or passion beyond the world of books. And yet there’s something tentative and unfulfilled about his donnish vigor. This scholar-celebrity--with famous texts to his credit ranging from theology to science fiction to children’s fairy tales to literary criticism--is too complex for his carefully appointed academic existence.
When Joy, a devoted American reader of his, requests a meeting with Jack in London, he cautiously allows the connection. Their meeting is staged as a communion of temperamental opposites who nonetheless are soulmates. As their tentative friendship deepens, Jack’s academic armor begins to chip away. Joy, who is escaping a bad marriage and has her young son Douglas (Joseph Mazzello) in tow, becomes Jack’s spiritual guardian. She implores him to open up and experience the pain of life in order to know its joys.
Does this sound a bit too pop psych for Oxford in the early ‘50s? William Nicholson, adapting his stage play--which was also a celebrated 1986 BBC telefilm starring Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom--lays on the touchy-feely stuff. And director Richard Attenborough sets each pronouncement in amber. Joy proclaims, “We learn when we hurt.” Jack announces that “the most intense joy lies not in the having but in the desiring.” And so on.
The filmmakers’ portrait of Jack deliberately downplays his considerable intellectual achievements, as if they were insubstantial compared to the juices of “real” life. In other words, the film takes an anti-intellectual approach to the intellect. Isn’t the passion we get from art a part of life too? Despite its high-toned airs, “Shadowlands” actually plumps for a rather conventional view of existence. It’s all about throwing down your books and opening yourself up to happiness.
Joy’s own life is presented as essentially sacrificial. She’s in the movie to bring Jack into the light. Her own considerable achievements are downplayed, and so is her emotional fragility. In real life Joy was born Jewish before converting to Christianity and was a communist and an award-winning poet. These things are touched upon in the movie but they don’t really add up to a character. Joy’s work as Jack’s editor and (at times) virtual collaborator is skimped altogether--probably because that would imply she did prize his bookishness--and their deep religious bond is downplayed. Its Christian particulars have been fuzzied into something a bit more new age-y.
The film’s biggest success is that it delineates Jack’s odyssey with care and precision, perhaps too much precision. A movie about opening yourself up to passion probably shouldn’t be this calibrated and serene.
But Hopkins is in his element here: He does repression better than just about anybody. When Joy, with her brusque realism, starts to befuddle Jack’s calm, he doesn’t seem entirely displeased. He’s been waiting, without his conscious awareness, for someone just like this to happen to his life. Hopkins moves Jack from bemused self-satisfaction to abject despair in one clean sweep.
Winger is strong despite her role’s built-in limits. It probably isn’t intended as ironic that Joy, spending so much time massaging Jack’s turmoil, never truly recognizes her own. Her brave words in the face of death are accepted simply as brave words, not as Joy’s way of perhaps denying her own fears. (We never see her spiritual terror, only her physical pain.) She’s sanctified--the ultimate literary groupie.
But Winger is too powerful an actress to leave it at that. There’s an undercurrent of anger and bitterness in Joy’s brusque truth-telling sessions with Jack. Something in her recoils at his sense of privilege. Winger makes Joy, for all her strength, a deeply lonely woman; when she’s speaking to Jack she often sounds rehearsed, as if she had already spoken these lines to herself.
Winger has probably spent one too many on-screen moments ailing in slow decline. In “Shadowlands,” the spectacle is particularly uncomfortable because Joy’s deteriorating condition seems to exist primarily to point up Jack’s spiritual reawakening. (In reality, he suffered alongside Joy, from severe osteoporosis.) “Shadowlands” is a moving experience but when it comes full circle by the end, it’s Lewis’ circle.
Anthony Hopkins: Jack Lewis
Debra Winger: Joy Gresham
Edward Hardwicke: Warnie Lewis
John Wood: Christopher Riley
A Savoy release. Produced by Richard Attenborough, Brian Eastman. Director Attenborough. Executive producer Terence Clegg. Screenplay by William Nicholson, based on his play. Cinematographer Roger Pratt. Editor Lesley Walker. Costumes Penny Rose. Music George Fenton. Production design Stuart Craig. Art director Michael Lamont. Set decorator Stephanie McMillan. Sound Simon Kaye, Jonathan Bates. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
MPAA-rating PG, for thematic elements. Times guidelines: It includes scenes of illness in a hospital.