on 24 August 2006
"I seem to play men who are sort of imprisoned in themselves," Anthony Hopkins comments in an interview included on this movie's DVD. And although this adequately characterizes a mere fraction of his work, roles like that of butler Stevens in Merchant/Ivory's adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's "Remains of the Day," Henry Wilcox in E.M. Forster's "Howards End" (also by Merchant/Ivory) and even Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter, illustrate Hopkins's minimalist approach to acting, which makes him so uniquely qualified to play emotionally restrained men, locked up behind the walls erected by convention, trauma or madness. Thus, while bearing little physical resemblance to the real C.S. Lewis, atheist-turned-Christian scholar and bestselling author of the famous "Narnia Chronicles," Hopkins was a natural choice for the role in this movie about Lewis and his wife-to-be, American poet Joy Gresham (Debra Winger).
Albeit subtitled "based on a true story," "Shadowlands" doesn't purport to recount the couple's relationship in its full complexity - that would take much more than a 2 hours, 15 minutes-long film, if it were accomplishable at all. On equally strong intellectual footing, Joy Gresham and "Jack" Lewis were bound to each other not only by a joint interest in literature and because Joy challenged all assumed bases of Lewis's scholarly life, but also by their personal geneses as convert Christians (he coming from atheism, she from Judaism, at least partly influenced by Lewis's writings). Obviously for reasons of dramatic streamlining, director Richard Attenborough and screenwriter William Nicholson - who adapted his play for the big screen after having already scripted the 1985 BBC production featuring Joss Acklund and Claire Bloom - chose to cut down on several facts and persons, such Joy Gresham's second son David (who is not mentioned at all), Lewis's 1954 move from Oxford's Magdalen College to similarly-named Magdalene College at Cambridge (likewise not included), the alcoholism of Lewis's brother Warren ("Warnie") (which is substantially downplayed, as is the abusiveness of Joy's first husband Bill Gresham) and Lewis's complicated friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien (who surprisingly is not at all among the featured Oxford scholars). Similarly, at least according to some accounts Lewis was not quite the bachelor he is shown to be here, possibly having shared more than tenancy of The Kilns (where he and Warren still lived when he met Joy) with Janie King Moore, 25 years his senior and mother of his college roommate Edward "Paddy" Moore, who died in WWI. With regard to Lewis's and Joy Gresham's relationship itself, the movie espouses the view of some biographers that the couple's April 1956 wedding was merely a marriage of convenience designed to allow Joy to stay in England - and that Lewis only fell in love with her after she had been diagnosed with cancer (although she had evidently been taken with him for a considerably longer time) - but here, too, much remains disputed: inevitably so, as this goes to the very heart of their romance; a romance, moreover, growing in an environment not exactly encouraging to the baring of one's soul to outsiders.
Be that all as it may, however, "Shadowlands" is an emotionally and visually stimulating, tremendously powerful production, centering on the recognition that there are only two ways to deal with love: either to shut it out, thus avoiding pain as much as you're foregoing bliss, or to embrace it, thus also allowing for the sorrow it may bring. As a boy, Lewis chose the former: Unable to cope with his mother's death and reconcile it with the idea of a benevolent God, he chose atheism over religion and, later, a scholar's protected, emotionally unchallenging existence over matrimony; this remaining his choice even after having accepted Christianity, now explaining human suffering as "God's megaphone for shouting at a callous world." Yet, all that was called into question when he met Joy who, with her outspoken nature, progressive views, ex-communist background and New York Jewish upbringing was the most unlikely match conceivable for him; and soon made herself unpopular with his Oxford colleagues, e.g. by pointedly rebuking Christopher Riley's (John Wood's) remark that men have intellect where women have souls (which incidentally could well have come from Lewis himself, who had once explained his refusal to marry by noting that then "all the topics of conversation would be used up in a fortnight"). Yet, what had started with a courtesy meeting over tea with a self-professed admirer soon blossomed into a stimulating intellectual exchange and, based thereon, friendship - although Lewis still clung to the idea that there was nothing more to their relationship. Indeed, just *because* Joy was a woman with whom he could have the intellectual exchange he had heretofore only known with men, he could accept her as a friend while keeping her at an emotional distance ... or so he thought. Only the realization that he would soon be losing her forever (at least, according to this movie's interpretation) cut through his armor. Still, although he believed he had now understood that happiness and pain are inextricably linked in love, his faith was again profoundly shaken by her death, giving birth to of his most personal works, "A Grief Observed."
Magnificently framed by its Oxford University background and featuring a tremendous cast, from the two leads to Edward Hardwicke (Warren Lewis), Joseph Mazzello (Douglas Gresham) and top-tier actors even in minor roles (to name but a few, Julian Fellowes, Michael Denison, Peter Howell, Julian Firth and Peter Firth), "Shadowlands" received Oscar nominations for Debra Winger and William Nicholson's screenplay (Anthony Hopkins was only nominated for "The Remains of the Day"), but in a year that also saw strong competition from "Philadelphia," "Age of Innocence," "Short Cuts" etc., ultimately lost out to "Schindler's List" and "The Piano" (Holly Hunter). Nevertheless, this is a powerful testimony to the love between two truly unusual individuals; one of Oxford-s pre-eminent scholars and the woman who was to him, as he wrote in her epitaph, "the whole world ... reflected in a single mind."