Shadowlands

Anthony Hopkins delivers yet another towering performance in Shadowlands, a touching, fictionalized account of a late-in-life love between eminent English writer and scholar C.S. Lewis and Joy Gresham, the Jewish-American poet, who changed his life. Contrary to popular notion, Shadowlands shows that there are second acts, and significant ones at that, in people's lives. Set in the early l950s, it's a quiet, pensive tale of two eccentric individuals whose personae, lifestyles, and cultures couldn't have been more different.

A middle-aged bachelor, Lewis is a reserved, repressed intellectual, who lives an orderly life with his brother Warnie (Edward Hardwick) and spends his leisure time with his male colleagues in a most habitual manner. For years, he's been the literary hero of Joy Gresham (Debra Winger), a feisty, straightforward Jewish-American housewife who's in the process of recovering from a failed marriage to an alcoholic.

After years of quiet admiration and correspondence with Lewis, Joy decides to take her son Douglas (Joseph Mazzello) and visit him in London. At first, the relationship is formal and restrained, but gradually it evolves into intimate friendship, romantic love, and ultimately marriage. Their liaison causes something of a stir, however, since Joy is an outsider par excellence. She's not only a woman, but an American Jew whose outspoken and uninhibited behavior defies Oxford's rigid sensibility and mores. By today's standards, Joy's trips to England may not be daring, but at the time, she was perceived as an adventurous woman who refused to be intimidated by a sexist male-dominated bastion, determined to challenge and battle the whole notion of a "woman's place."

Focusing on their private lives, Shadowlands doesn't provide many insights about the creative process. As the story unfolds, one almost forgets that Lewis is a world-renowned writer of children's novels, including the seminal series, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The film effectively captures the isolation and insulation–intellectual and emotional–of British academic life, but it also suggests that the act of reading can provide solace and comfort and even change one's life.

Up to the last reel, the film resists sentimentality, but then it succumbs to a level of a slow, old-fashioned–even heavy-handed–melodrama that negates its earlier matter-of-fact tone. Even so, when Joy is stricken with a fatal disease, the movie emphasizes the hopeful dimensions of the mutual attraction. And both individuals continue to change radically as a result of their bond. In deep crisis when they meet, the spirited Joy finds a new direction in her life, and Hopkins lets his guards down.

It's a testament to the multi-nuanced writing of William Nicholson, who adapted his stage play, after successful productions in London and Broadway that the drama works effectively on both personal and collective levels. Joy and Lewis represent divergent cultures: the reserved and controlled British versus the open and emotional Jewish-American. Ultimately though, the film's greatest achievement is in showing that neither person is an abstraction or a type.

As helmer, Richard Attenborough drops the showy, superficial strategy that he had used in Chaplin, and instead opts for a modest, unobtrusive direction that serves the material and the actors. Production values are accomplished in every department, particularly Roger Pratt's on-location lensing of Oxford, Magdalen College and its old chapel.

Oscar-winner Hopkins adds another laurel to his recent achievements. As always, there's music in his speech and nothing is over-deliberate or forced about his acting. In fact, in Shadowlands, Hopkins renders a more emotional performance than in The Remains of the Day, his previous, equally impressive, work.

Coming off years of desultory and unimpressive movies, Winger at last plays a role worthy of her talent, though her character is less complex. Occasionally, as in a scene in which she tells off a sexist instructor, Winger uses her natural sarcastic voice to a great advantage. The entire British supporting cast is glorious, from Edward Hardwicke, as the quiet brother, to Michael Denison, as the Reverend, Peter Firth, as the doctor, and particularly John Wood, as the acerbic professor.

A mature film for grown-ups, Shadowlands demonstrates the human fear of love, but also its magical power to entirely transform one's life. The film suggests, that to experience happiness and intimacy, one must risk exposure, vulnerability, and pain.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Actress: Debra Winger

Screenplay (Adapted): William Nicholson

Oscar Awards:  None

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Best Actress was Holly Hunter for "The Piano."  Steven Zaillian won the Adapted Screenplay for "Schindler's List," directed by Spielberg.