It seems Americans are doomed to envy the English for their dignity and to mock them for their repression.
"Shadowlands" is the kind of doomed romance Hollywood loved to film in the 1940s. The subject matter - love and terminal illness - lends itself to melodrama and sentimentality, qualities we Americans crave and reject simultaneously. If we are uncomfortable with the emotionalism of such a tale, "Shadowlands" let's us off the hook because it is awash in redeeming values.
It's hard to say a movie is overblown when it is the true story of a late-life love affair between the renowned writer and academician C.S. Lewis and his outspoken American admirer, Joy Gresham. Until Gresham turned his world on its end, Lewis lived smack in the middle of the extraordinary containment that marks British academic life. As speaker, writer and teacher, the man had a broad and eclectic intellect that was shot through with a whimsical streak that found its way in the stories he wrote for children.
Add to a true story a daring performance by Anthony Hopkins and one of plucky intelligence by Debra Winger, and this film moves beyond type. Jack Lewis (Hopkins) has the respect and affection of his colleagues, and most probably their envy as well, despite their distrust of his popular success. In that lovely world before celebrity worship, Lewis juggles the life of intellectual and famous writer without much damage to his daily life. Sharing a house in quiet harmony with his brother, Warnie (Edward Hardwicke), Jack attends to the duties and pleasures of life at Oxford.
On the day that Joy Gresham (Debra Winger) announces that she is coming to England to meet him, Jack's life of pleasurable habit, a world in which he is master, is changed irrevocably. "Why, he asks, "do we want to love when losing is so painful?" The magical quality that infuses his spirit allows him to open his soul and embrace love with wonder. What would, in another actor, be mawkish is, in Hopkins, deeply moving. He risks sentimentality here to convey the conviction that real love, even when it comes suddenly and uninvited, can only be welcomed. As Joy, Debra Winger is cool, collected, and effective as she drops into Oxford with her American candor: "Are you trying to be offensive, Mr. Riley, or merely stupid?", she asks Lewis' colleague. John Wood plays Christopher Riley as restrained counterpoint to Hopkins' boyish readiness to fall in love for the first time.
If Hopkins brave vulnerability dominates the screen, Edward Hardwicke is his equal as Lewis' brother Warnie. Thoroughly reserved by nature and culture, he gives a subtle, deeply touching performance as a man who loves his brother without judgment.
It seems Americans are doomed to envy the English for their dignity and to mock them for their repression. In this film they have ample time to do both. The surprise is that Anthony Hopkins' C.S. Lewis is a wonderful lesson that warmth is not the preserve of the uninhibited.
Film Critic: JOAN ELLIS
Word Count: 490
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