Archive Review – “Shadowlands” (Director: Richard Attenborough)

Review first published 14/02/12




To tie in with Valentine’s Day, I thought that I’d recycle a review that I wrote last year for the Rotten Tomatoes site on this film that charts the relationship between C.S. Lewis and Joy Gresham.


At the start of the film, we are introduced to C.S. Lewis (known throughout the majority of the film as Jack) in his role as a Professor at Magdalen College in Oxford. His life is well-ordered to the traditions of college life, he shares a house with his brother, Warnie, he does speaking engagements for local organisations and he relishes the challenge of his views and work by his colleagues and students.


His lifestyle is disturbed by a letter from an American, Joy Gresham, who admires his work and asks to meet him.   So starts a relationship which causes Jack to open up his emotions through a friendship with both Joy and her son, Douglas, a marriage of convenience to enable Joy to stay in England, a marriage for love on Joy’s diagnosis of cancer and the tragedy of her loss.



Among Richard Attenborough’s body of work including classics such as Gandhi and Chaplin, Shadowlands appears to be one that is overlooked. His direction is perfect and along with William Nicholson’s script, based on his original stage play, is a study of Jack Lewis the man, rather C.S. Lewis the author. It is also a study of friendship, love and the pain of loss. Given the storyline, it is tender, tragic and, in some respects, uplifting.


Anthony Hopkins portrays Lewis as a multi-faceted character. You get the formal and aloof Professor who challenges his colleagues and students, who becomes the man who befriends and falls in love, the man who is deeply affected by the loss of the love of his life, and finally, the man who chooses to rebuild his life following Joy’s passing.


Debra Winger is an equal match to Hopkins in the role of Gresham. Through the script and her performance, Winger is enabled to craft a character who playfully challenges Jack through her friendship and love for him and the apparent pomposity of the Oxford college system, as seen in a brilliant scene at a college Christmas party. Winger also portrays the scenes involving Gresham’s cancer with dignity and shows the effects on her character without Joy appearing weak.


The supporting cast is also of a high standard including the likes of Julian Fellowes, Peter Firth, Michael Dennison and John Wood. However, I would like to single out two single out two performances among the supporting cast – The first actor is Edward Hardwicke (better known as Granada Television’s Doctor Watson to Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes) as Warnie Lewis presents a character who not only playfully mocks Jack and his potential friendship with Joy in the earlier scenes, but also serves as the warm “uncle” role to Douglas and becomes Jack’s voice of reason when Jack becomes burdened by his grief for Joy.


The second actor is Joseph Mazzello, known at the time for Jurassic Park and more recently in the HBO series, The Pacific. His performance as Douglas Gresham conveys the magic of childhood, especially in the scene when he examines Lewis’ wardrobe to see if there is a gateway to Narnia and the grief of a child who loses his parent without being either maudling or saccharin.


If you are expecting lots of references to the Narnia books, you may be disappointed. As I said earlier in the review, this film is very much about Jack Lewis rather than C.S. Lewis, his relationship with Joy and a study of friendship, love and loss.


I am not afraid to admit that I was affected by this film, both through the sadness of the storyline and, postively, through the message delivered by Hopkins at the film’s conclusion which encapsulates not only the themes of the film but, perhaps, all of our lives.


Rating: 5/5


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