WFTB Score: 17/20
The plot: Given two life sentences for murders he insists he didn’t commit, banker Andy Dufresne looks for ways to make his existence in prison bearable. While his professional skills make him useful to the warden, they bring him no closer to freedom. Andy turns to ‘fixer’ Red to obtain some products which will make his time more productive.
Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), discovering that his wife is having an affair with a golf pro, takes matters into his own hands and kills them both. At least, that’s the verdict the jury arrive at at his trial, resulting in two life sentences to be served at Shawshank jail. To begin with, Andy’s overwhelmed, his rough treatment at the hands of “the sisters” causing him to be pitied by long-term inmate Ellis Redding (Morgan Freeman), known as Red – especially since neither brutal guard Hadley (Clancy Brown) nor warden Norton (Bob Gunton) have the slightest concern for their charges’ welfare.
Andy strikes up a friendship with Red and uses the older man’s facility for smuggling items into prison to obtain a rock hammer and, later, a poster of Rita Hayworth, while Andy’s own skills at moving money around become increasingly useful to the guards and especially to the warden, who amasses a small fortune from Andy’s efforts. Little wonder, then, that while Norton indulges Andy’s efforts to improve the prison library – named after tragic old lag Brooks (James Whitmore) – he’s reluctant to let Andy go, even when newcomer Tommy (Gil Bellows) appears to offer Andy grounds for appeal. Nonetheless, Andy maintains his hope, his dignity, and a plan in which Red becomes a key player.
If it’s a self-evident truth that a film about a man living a regular, uneventful, troubled life would offer little to audiences, it’s reasonable to believe that the opposite – a protagonist going from the degrading depths of imprisoned despair to the exhilarating joys of freedom – would offer an enormous amount; especially if the imprisonment and despair are caused by injustices, some more calculated than others.
The huge gulf between the peaks and troughs of Andy’s journey inform the viewer’s own experience of The Shawshank Redemption, guided by the terrific storytelling abilities of Stephen King and Frank Darabont. We instinctively understand the parallels between Red’s repeated parole hearings and Brooks’ short-lived freedom; we instinctively react to Andy’s care of Tommy, and the way Andy’s glimpse of freedom is dashed by vile, violent corruption. We also appreciate a number of beautiful and memorable moments, such as Andy broadcasting The Marriage of Figaro to stunned inmates or the revelation of Andy’s plan, the swells of emotion emphasised by Thomas Newman’s excellent score.
Overarching the whole film is Andy’s quiet stoicism, his insistence on retaining hope while others are prepared to throw in the towel: not only does he sustain himself, he inspires Red, Tommy and dozens of others who benefit from his efforts to make the library – and the prison – a true place of redemption. The theme ‘Get busy living, or get busy dying’ shines through; and while the super-happy ending is undeniably over-the-top, it feels right given the decades of pain Andy has suffered.
At least as important is the credible and heart-warming friendship between Andy and Red. Tim Robbins keeps Andy’s secrets well-hidden, whilst Freeman is simply magnificent as Red, his good humour and wisdom covering up his own pain at being constantly overlooked for parole – who wouldn’t want a friend as resourceful and philosophical as the old jailbird?
That said, these strong, archetypal performances also hint at why I can’t agree with the voters of IMDB who routinely put this film at the top of the Top 250. Andy always seems a little too much in control, maintaining his icy composure even as terrible things are done to him. And while it’s by no means to the detriment of this film, the laconic Morgan Freeman voiceover has now become such a cliché that it’s difficult to hear without a small roll of the eyes.
More damagingly, there’s very little shading to the villains of the piece: Norton hides his sins behind outward adherence to the Good Book, while Kurgan Hadley is a trademark thug with almost no redeeming features, apart from keeping his word in respect of the beers. Anyone who’s seen an episode of Porridge could tell you that the screws are the enemies and the lags the good guys, regardless of their crimes.
That last observation may be facetious, but it cuts to the heart of what I feel about The Shawshank Redemption. In terms of subject, theme, script, score, performance, cinematography and so on, it doesn’t put a foot wrong; and if you’re not thoroughly moved by Andy and Red’s (eventually) uplifting travails, there’s probably something wrong with you. On the other hand, it really doesn’t tell you much you haven’t seen before, and there’s just a whiff of misplaced mawkishness about its (slightly) simplistic sentimentality and the way it doles out of karmic justice at its climax. Handsome? Of course. Touching? Absolutely. Best film ever? For me, far from it.