Shadowlands is, at its core, a very typical “weepy” romantic drama. However, it’s an exceptionally well-executed example of the genre, one that demonstrates a rather uncanny understanding about the complexities of love and loss that help it stand out from a lot of its fellow films. A superbly powerful central performance from Anthony Hopkins certainly doesn’t hurt, and Richard Attenborough’s elegant, yet unintrusive, direction allows the story to flow without ever feeling too emotionally manipulative. It’s an intelligent and well-constructed exploration of a tragic love affair, one that feels distinctly human in its approach to its subjects and themes.
Shadowlands is, by its nature, a literate drama. It centres around C.S. Lewis, the writer who wrote The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and countless other fiction and non-fiction books. While discussing his philosophy around pain and suffering, Joy quotes Lewis’ work back to him. “You know my writing too well,” he concedes, and it’s clear that the script has a profound understanding of the C.S. Lewis’ writings, presenting the author as a complex and human individual with a very strong moral and philosophical underpinning.
The movie is set, as you might imagine, at Oxford, where Lewis taught. It doesn’t just celebrate the distinctly British atmosphere to the story – it wallows in it, to great effect. Attenborough has an uncanny knack for capturing atmosphere. The director manages to present a version of 1950s Oxford that seems like a magical fantasy, and yet strangely real. It’s the kind of place that could exist, and yet still feels like something from somebody’s imagination.
There’s a sense of ethereal “otherness” to everything going on here, as Attenborough seems to soak every frame of the film in its setting – so much so that the college seems as much a character as “Jack” Lewis, Joy Gresham or even the romance between them. As the pair sit on the riverbank together, the rowing team go by. Their happiest memories involve what Jack refers to as the “vulgar” early morning activities of the younger students.
There’s a weird sense of timelessness to the place, which actually captures the atmosphere of the college quite well. “They say that Shelly used to sail paper boats here,” Jack explains at one point, as if he’s idly referring to something that happened a few months back. The names of iconic and long-dead writers and points are name-dropped like old friends, as if they passed through only years before. “That’s the new building,” he tells her during the guided tour of the grounds. “New, huh?” she asks. He hesitates as if he’s been caught out. “1773.”
It’s that timelessness that grants the relationship between Jack and Joy some of its poignancy. Against the ancient traditions, and the classical buildings, Jack and Joy learn that their own lives are somewhat fleeting. There is, of course, never enough time to spend with anybody you truly love, but Shadowlands explores a love affair where that seems especially true. Attenborough brilliantly and effectively contrasts the seemingly eternal nature of the college with rather finite lives of those inhabiting it.
It is in the film’s portrayal of that love affair, though, that Attenborough’s romance truly distinguishes itself. At its core, Shadowlands explores the reality of love and loss. Jack and Joy have barely come to terms with one another before she receives a rather dire prognosis from her doctor. Jack, of course, doesn’t cope well. Joy tries to explain that the inevitability of their parting gives weight to their love in the present. She tells him, “The pain then, is part of the happiness now.” Too many films exploring love and loss tend to focus on one rather than the other, to the point where it seems manipulative or dismissive.
Shadowlands instead realises that the two are intertwined and inseparable. One of the film’s most powerful moments (and one that, I admit, gets me every time) works because it reconciles both. Jack and Joy are sitting together, enjoying one another’s company. There’s no grand displays of affection, no attempt to convince the audience that they are deeply and truly in love. Instead, they seem truly at peace and comfortable with one another. Joy is knitting. And then she isn’t. “I’m sorry, Jack,” she states, matter-of-factly. And that is that.
Shadowlands is quintessentially British, in the same way that The Remains of the Day is quintessentially British. In fact, Anthony Hopkins quite cornered the market on repressed British gentlemen during the nineties. His performance here is just as superb as his performance in The Remains of the Day, as he plays a writer who seems to find a great deal of difficulty expressing himself to other people. As played by Hopkins, Lewis channels his passion into his books and lectures, while awkwardly fumbling in the company of others. “Has he said anything to you?” one of his colleagues asks another. “About her?” the other replies. “No.”
At one point, Lewis tries to coax Joy into sharing her poetry. “I shan’t be rude,” he promises. At another, he has a great deal of difficulty with hotel room service (he thought it meant “saying your prayers in bed”). While on the phone, he bumbles through the conversation, forgetting his room number (it was on the door outside) and placing an order for two gin-and-tonics. When Joy points out that he hates gin, Jack simply replies, “Yes, I’m afraid I panicked.”
Any other actor would awkwardly fumble with these lines, but Hopkins delivers them without even missing a beat. It truly is a tremendous central performance, and I’d rank it easily as a career highlight in a long career populated with highlights. Hopkins nails every scene he appears in, especially when it comes to struggling with Joy’s inevitable demise. There’s a sense that Joy is more at peace with her death than he is – despite leaving behind a young child. Debra Winger provides sterling support as Joy.
Shadowlands is a thoughtful and considered drama, one well-constructed and emotionally maturity. It’s a rare weepy that manages to have both a brain and a heart, and it’s easily one of the most underrated dramas of the nineties. It’s powerful and moving stuff, handled superbly.
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