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‘Shadowlands’ (PG)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 07, 1994

"Shadowlands" isn't just a three-hankie tearjerker. You'll need bulk linen to stay dry through this romance between Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. Yet this dramatized account of the C. S. Lewis-Joy Gresham affair is more than manipulative.

An engaging encounter between adults, it's also about lost childhoods, questions of God, intellect versus emotion, pain versus pleasure and other far-reaching themes. Perhaps most significantly, "Shadowlands" is illuminated from beginning to end by Hopkins. This may be the best thing he's ever done.

The basic biographical details are true. Lewis, author of "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe," among many books, indeed met and fell in love with Gresham. But as screenwriter William Nicholson (who wrote the original BBC teleplay and Broadway stage play before this) emphasizes in press notes for the movie: "I have used parts of their story, not used other parts and imagined the rest."

If those imaginings are all-too-neatly contrived, they're at least arranged along the classier lines of "84 Charing Cross Road" (another Brit-Yank encounter starring Hopkins), David Lean's "Brief Encounter" and "Turtle Diary," to name a few. On one side of Nicholson's romantic divide is Hopkins, a British professor, a Christian and a celebrated writer, whose children's books are written with instinctive -- rather than empirical -- inspiration.

On the other is Winger (allotted less acting room than Hopkins), a straight-talking, Jewish-American poet and mother of one who barges into his quietly ordered life. Hopkins can browbeat Oxford students about notions of courtly love, but he's no match for Winger's irreverent wisdom.

"I like a good fight," says the professor.

"That's great," says the poet. "But when's the last time you lost?"

The two meet after initial correspondence; Winger and her son Douglas (Joseph Mazzello) are fans of his writings. Winger, escaping an estranged marriage in America, arranges a teatime meeting with Hopkins that is contentious but mutually attracting. After she visits his home, with "Wardrobe"-smitten son in tow, a platonic passion springs up.

Though they're not sure what is happening between them, they take wicked delight in the perplexity they wreak among university dons, priests and bachelors -- including Edward Hardwicke, Hopkins's brother. But this first bloom of friendship (or aspiring love) must undergo a deeply excruciating maturation before Hopkins and Winger can truly unite.

Sir Richard Attenborough, the director, takes his delight in the academic banter among the cap-and-gowned -- especially between Hopkins and stuffy professor John Wood. There's another scene in which Hopkins and Winger attend an outdoor sunrise ritual, in which chirrupy Oxford choristers peal from a church tower as Englishmen wave Union Jacks and somersault into the local river. But the tea-and-crumpets Englishness and old-fashioned (OK, leaden) direction are entirely appropriate. This movie needs to amble along, as if a host of Oxford dons were directing the proceedings.

Nicholson's Anglo-versus-American theme sometimes nudges a little too hard. "ANYBODY HERE CALLED LEWIS?" Winger yells inelegantly across a roomful of tea-sipping Brits, as she seeks out the author for the first time. Yet, a few seconds later, a Hopkins acting moment transforms everything. In the appalled silence that follows Winger's shout, Hopkins raises his hand with the timidity of a child in class.

Speaking of children, the relationship between Hopkins and 8-year-old Mazzello is an affecting development of its own. Hopkins -- it's almost redundant to say -- is tremendous, as he tries to understand this small being for whom he can only write abstractly. Mazzello, too young for the sadnesses in his life, puts realistic sullenness into his role. As the two sit in front of the dusty wardrobe that inspired a great novel -- but is nonetheless just a wardrobe -- contemplating a slew of shared tragedy and disillusionment, it's one moment (of several) to reach for that linen.

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