Debra Winger and Anthony Hopkins sublime in the moving Shadowlands
Director: Richard Attenborough
Cast: Anthony Hopkins (CS “Jack” Lewis), Debra Winger (Joy Davidman), Edward Hardwicke (Warnie Lewis), Joseph Mazzello (Douglas Gresham), John Woods (Dr Christopher Riley), Michael Denison (Harry Harrington), James Frain (Peter Whistler), Julian Fellowes (Desmond Arding), Peter Firth (Dr Craig), Roger Ashton-Griffiths (Dr Eddie Monk)
“We can’t have the happiness of yesterday without the pain of today. That’s the deal”. It’s a sentiment that runs through Shadowlands, a beautifully made, deeply heartfelt, incredibly moving tear-jerker based on the (largely) true story of how the man who invented Narnia, CS Lewis (Anthony Hopkins), fell in love very late in life with an American poet Joy Davidman (Debra Winger) only for her to succumb to cancer early in their marriage.
The story had a been a life-long investment from William Nicholson, who had developed the story first into a radio play, a TV drama (with Joss Ackland and a BAFTA winning Claire Bloom) and then a stage play (which won Nigel Hawthorne several awards in the lead role, including a Tony Award) and finally into this film. A wonderfully tender, profound and genuine exploration of the not only grief but the joy and delight that opening yourself up to love can bring you, Nicholson’s Oscar nominated script was brought to the screen by Richard Attenborough.
Looking back over Attenborough’s CV you immediately notice the vast majority of films he directed were massive, all-star, huge scope epics – A Bridge Too Far, Gandhi – which were as much triumphs of logistics and studio managements as they were displays of directing. Shadowlands is one of the smallest scale, most personal films he ever made – and it’s enough to make you wish that Attenborough had allowed himself to make more intimate chamber pieces like this. It’s a wonderful reminder, not only of how skilled he is at pacing and story-telling, but also what a sublime actor’s director he is. Dealing with material that in lesser hands could have become sentimental, Attenborough turns out a film that is realistic, tender, sad but also laced throughout with a warmth and (figurative and literal) Joy.
And of course the involvement of Attenborough also meant the involvement of his regular collaborator Anthony Hopkins. At the start of the 90s Hopkins was in such a run of form he could plausibly claim to be the best actor in the world. In all of this though, Shadowlands might be one of his finest accomplishments. Superbly detailed, perfectly restrained, gentle, tender, hugely vulnerable and intensily scared (under it all) of connecting with the wider world or allowing himself to feel genuine emotions, Hopkins’ CS Lewis is simply exceptional. With all the discipline of a great actor he never once goes for the easy option, but gently allows emotions to play behind his eyes (the eyes by the way that he can hardly bring himself to settle on other people until half way through the film). And those moments where he weeps – three times in the film, and each increasingly more emotional – are simply beautiful in every way from acting to filming.
Lewis is bashful and repressed, so it’s all the moving to see his face start to relax into excitement and joy when he spots Joy in the audience at a lecture he is giving, or him simply enjoying the intelligence and challenge that she brings to her conversation with him. Debra Winger as Joy Davidman matches Hopkins step-for-step, in a sublime performance of prickily New York attitudes at first out of touch in Oxford, but whose humanity shines through. It takes her time perhaps to feel the love Lewis does (but can’t admit too), but when she does start to feel more for Lewis, she has no patience for his repressed unwillingness to acknowledge them. On top of which, Winger is very funny in the role – she has little truck with the sheltered, clubbish snobbiness of some of Lewis’ friends and takes a wicked delight in shocking the stuffy, unchallenged intellectuals.
The chemistry between these two actors is sublime, and the slightly autumnal relationship between the two of them that builds feels wonderfully genuine. Nicholson’s script makes an astute examination of Lewis’ personality and Christianity. Throughout the film, we are brought back again and again to a lecture Lewis gives – with increasingly less and less disconnection – on why God allows suffering and pain in the world. Pleasingly Lewis’ faith in the film isn’t challenged – only his rather pleased-with-itself lack of doubt and his complacent lack of experience. Experiencing love and loss himself, makes him question the views he has held – and leads him to develop a richer, more genuine understanding of the world.
Which all makes the film sound very heavy, and it’s not. It’s a delightfully light done story that never once leans too hard on the tragedy. Instead it punctures several moments with touches of humour (much of it from Joy’s American clashes with high-table Britishness) and moments of sweet affection. The film gains a lot of balance from Edward Hardwicke’s delightful performance as Lewis’ Dr Watson-ish brother Warnie, a bluff ex-army officer turned academic who reveals himself over the course of a film to have a great deal of hidden love, affection and empathy. It also has a delightful performance from Joseph Mazzello as Douglas Gresham, a child performance that brilliantly avoids all cloying sweetness and feels very real as a shy, nervous boy dealing with his mother dying.
But then, Lewis is also a shy nervous boy (both he and Warnie never really got over the death of their mother as boys – a moment that both wordlessly acknowledge while observing Joy with her son at the hospital), and the film follows him becoming something more than that, a man wh has loved and lost and can deal with it. A neat subplot around James Frain’s difficult working-class student demonstrates his growing ability to relate and empathise with others. A large chunk of the film builds towards Lewis’ tearful outpouring of grief (a scene impossible to watch dry eyed), a reaction that seemed impossible in the opening moments.
But then that’s what the film is saying: We have to accept that the joy of loving people, the wonder and warmth that they bring to our life, will inevitably one day lead to us losing them. Allowing us to experience love and joy is counter balanced by the pain we will feel when they go. It’s a deal – and if it is a deal, it’s the price we pay for having our life enriched. Attenborough’s simply beautiful, romantic film covers all this gently and brilliantly: it’s a film to treasure and hold tight.