WFTB Score: 13/20
The plot: The cosy life of academic and children’s author C.S. Lewis is turned upside-down by the arrival of fan Douglas Gresham and his divorcee mother Joy. Braving the scandal the relationship causes at Oxford, the couple marry for convenience but find that true love blossoms. Neither love nor faith, however, can intervene when Joy is struck down with cancer.
Oxford, 1952: Among the dreaming spires, C.S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins), known to his friends as ‘Jack’, enjoys the academic banter and stuffy formality of college life. Although Jack’s life seems rather limited – he lives as a bachelor with his brother Warnie (Edward Hardwicke) – he enjoys the cut-and-thrust of teaching, lecturing and arguing with fellow dons about the magic of his Narnia books for children. He’s used to praise and adulation from polite Christian groups, but when he arranges to meet an American fan, Mrs Joy Gresham (Debra Winger), Jack is surprised and delighted to find her combative, intelligent and creative (she writes poems), even though her forward personality is at odds with English and Oxonian reserve.
Fascinated with her, Jack invites Joy and her son Douglas (Joseph Mazzello) to stay at his and Warnie’s house, the Kilns, scandalising the great and good of the university who wonder what Mr Gresham has to say about the arrangement; but as he is an alcoholic looking for a divorce, the answer is not a lot. Douglas, meanwhile, finds the legendary wardrobe in the attic but discovers that it is only a wardrobe after all.
Joy and Douglas go back to America, leaving Jack forlorn, but she turns up at a lecture in London, newly divorced and with an odd proposal for the author: to marry her so that she can stay in England. Jack agrees and to Joy’s increasing frustration the pair continue their separate lives in Oxford and London. It takes a crisis – Joy’s leg snapping due to the effects of cancer – to make Jack realise how much she means to him, and the pair marry ‘before God’ to prove their love for each other. In remission, Jack and Joy spend a blissful honeymoon period, a time of unparalleled happiness for Lewis in particular; however, the honeymoon is only temporary and Jack and Douglas must face up to new and painful realities.
Director Richard Attenborough insists at the start of Shadowlands that his story is true, and indeed the general plot is factual, even though there’s a son missing and the real Lewis was a more garrulous and complex character than portrayed here. Such inaccuracies (there are numerous others) are notable but forgivable since this is not a biopic in the traditional sense; William Nicholson’s screenplay goes for higher themes and highlights the transformative effect of love, emphasising that it can happen at any stage in life and to the unlikeliest of people.
In this light, no matter how unlike Lewis Hopkins is, his performance is still superb, drawing out a character from the narrow range of experience offered by the university to the full gamut of love and loss in his life with Joy and Douglas. That the transformation makes Jack so vulnerable is touching, and after Joy dies the scene between Hopkins and Mazzello in the attic is profoundly affecting. The film may well be engineered to be a tear-jerker, but there is no doubting the intensity or sincerity of the emotions on display. Mazzello (for a child actor, especially) does well throughout the film, as does Winger in a role that could easily have come across as brash or self-pitying; Joy is proud but vulnerable and a perfect match for Jack’s wits. Hardwicke also puts in a good performance as the author’s observant but supportive brother.
However, whilst I have no particular problem with the licence taken with history to tell a clearer story and make a particular point, in Shadowlands the simplification is taken to extremes, with academic sniffiness about Jack’s romancing embodied in the single (if effective) attitude of John Wood’s Christopher Riley, and ecclesiastical condescension in Michael Denison’s chaplain Harry Harrington. Much the same can be said of the treatment of Oxford, whose mist-covered spires, choirs and punting japes form an idealised backdrop to the film’s events; or Lewis’ thieving student Whistler (James Frain) who is initially a mild irritation to Jack but later becomes more sympathetic as the teacher’s perspective evolves. Whistler’s father’s motto ‘we read to know we are not alone’ is taken up and adapted by Lewis at the film’s end (with ‘read’ replaced by ‘love’), and whilst the first quote is accurate (Lewis’s own, I believe), the adaptation is symptomatic of the sentimentality present in Shadowlands from the beginning. And although the script touches on atheism, Joy’s Jewish background and Communist politics, these are all smoothed over far too readily in the nostalgic glow of an old-fashioned, steam-driven Britain.
Shadowlands is a well-acted, beautifully-filmed and very moving meditation on happiness and how pain is its vital and inevitable counterpart. It’s in all respects a ‘nice’ film that you can safely watch with both your nephew and your granny at the same time, without fear of loud noises or offensive language shocking either. A good thing, on the whole, and all too rare in this day and age; but in cooking up such a lovely, warm story, you feel an awful lot has been left out, and these ingredients might have added a good deal more flavour still.