The success of "Shadowlands," which opens today at the Senator, is as inevitable as the coming of spring. It's got the world's most famous and beloved actor, it's physically beautiful, it's British in style and tone with a warm, plucky American heartThe success of "Shadowlands," which opens today at the Senator, is as inevitable as the coming of spring. It's got the world's most famous and beloved actor, it's physically beautiful, it's British in style and tone with a warm, plucky American heart, it's "life-affirming" while it watches a death, and it'll get most of its audiences blubbering wetly out into the night. The critics, moreover, appear to love it. Except for one.
I found it cheap, vulgar, synthetic and unmoving. Other than that, I liked it a lot.
The movie is conceived as an ode to Joy: It chronicles the love and marriage of C.S. "Jack" Lewis, a crusty Oxford don and author of both scholarly and popular works and a life-long bachelor, and Joy Gresham, an American divorcee and poet, in the early '50s (Lewis was born in 1898).
Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, girl gets cancer, all with the glorious crenelated towers of Oxford as a background. Boy: the great Anthony Hopkins. Girl: Debra Winger. Oxford is played by Oxford.
The good news is that Hopkins is, as ever, casually, diffidently great. It's a little irritating, actually. This fellow is promiscuously great. In a creepy potboiler like "Silence of the Lambs," he's great. In the austere and intellectually provocative "Remains of the Day," he's great. In "Freejack," for crying out loud, a cheapie sci-fi pooch starring the brilliant Emilio Estevez, he's freakin' great!
His Jack Lewis is smug, rigid, intellectually deft, possessed of the bone-deep confidence of the British ruling elite and an emotional clot. This guy's a walking zombie, whose insides haven't seen the sun or tasted the rain or felt the wind in centuries. The movie offers a programmatic interpretation of his inner tundra: when he was a lad, mummy died and he felt betrayed and closed the hatches forever. Forever until . . . Joy.
We know a lot about what Winger's Joy Gresham isn't: She isn't a communist any more, and she isn't a married woman any more. Unfortunately, we never learn what she is. We don't even know how serious she is about her poetry. Other than a few sprightly exchanges where her American bluntness contrasts (rather cheaply, I thought) with the plummy British decorum, we learn nothing about her inner life. And least of all can we fathom why Jack should fall in love with her. She's a vapor, a whisper, a reflection in a mirror, and Winger can't even control the New York accent that mysteriously vanishes and reappears from scene to scene. But by the movie's primitive emotional scheme she is . . . life.
What underlies and undercuts "Shadowlands" is a kind of psychological rigidity of its own, as might be expressed as follows: Repression = Bad; Expression = Good. The imposition of these values corrupts the material. Oxford must be portrayed, under the heavy hand of the irrepressibly vulgar Richard Attenborough, who didn't go there, as a kind of all-fool's society, with heavy jowled tweed-sacked dweebs uttering suety banalities. It cannot, by any means, be the repository of Western NTC knowledge, the cutting edge of scholarship, the epicenter of a culture.
It follows then that Jack Lewis is represented as a children's book author who doesn't know an actual child, a prime symbol of his emotional sterility. Jack can't be portrayed as one of the world's most eminent scholars, who achieved a popular reputation both in adult works ("The Screwtape Letters") and children's ("The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe"). He must be portrayed as an unworldly maiden aunt, though he was one of the most worldly men on earth, having learned about the world as an infantry officer in the trenches of the Western Front, where he was wounded. This is an experience that seems far more central to the development of his personality than the death of mum, yet it is one the movie ignores.
Still further, the film is structured -- from a play by William Nicholson as adapted by the playwright -- even more oppressively. It's like a clinic in dramatic structure rather than a spontaneous, passionate story. Nicholson drearily lays things out: plot (Jack-Joy) and subplot, which ironically mirrors the larger arch of the story -- it tells of Jack's failure to reach a young student who is intimidated by Oxford, and of the boy's eventual "recovery" when he gets into the "real world," which oh-so-neatly matches Jack's "recovery" at the hands of Joy.
Nicholson crudely deploys oppositional images: "Shadowlands" is Jack's name for the emotionally stunted location of his life before Joy; on the wall of his home is a portrait of a happy valley in Herefordshire that hung on his wall when he was a child, which, although an actual place, he's never found. Joy, of course, helps him find it, both emotionally and actually; it's a lovely riverine cleft in the land under a sparkling sun, untainted by shadows, of course.
Attenborough can't help himself from underscoring the obviousness of the script with the obviousness of his directing. When Jack begins to confront his feelings for Joy, what physical act is he doing? Why . . . he's pulling the cork out of a bottle!
The scenes where Gresham is assaulted by cancer are of course effective; why wouldn't they be, particularly as they touch upon movie memories of Winger's tragic grapple with the disease in "Terms of Endearment" years ago? And Hopkins is utterly superb (that's where the extra half-star comes from). And Oxford is glorious Oxford. But "Shadowlands" never seems particularly real. It's bad Masterpiece Theatre crossed with an American disease-of-the-week TV movie.
Starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger
Directed by Richard Attenborough
Released by Savoy