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‘Shadowlands’ (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 07, 1994

Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger make an unlikely but believable couple in "Shadowlands," a high-class tear-jerker about the romance of repressed British writer C.S. Lewis with feisty American poet Joy Gresham. Lewis, a bachelor professor at Oxford, late in life found first Joy, then heartbreak. In this literate hankie sopper, he learns that love and pain coexist.

Based on the lovers' true story, William Nicholson's screenplay brims with substance and wit, though it's essentially a soap opera with a Rhodes scholarship. When tears are dried and noses blown, it's obvious we've just seen "Midterms of Endearment."

The movie, which is handsomely directed by Richard Attenborough, initially focuses on Lewis, a '50s-era celebrity who remained isolated both from his public and the subjects about which he wrote and lectured. Though a childless and cloistered don, he wrote exquisite children's tales and expounded wisely on the benefits of human suffering. If ever a man were testing heaven's patience, Lewis was.

"I'm not sure that God wants to make us happy. Pain is God's megaphone to wake a dead world," he tells a gathering of fans in the movie's introduction. Doubtless they trust that his thoughts are born of personal knowledge, but Lewis -- at least in Nicholson's rather scanty version of his life -- is something of a human tea cozy.

He clings to the warmth and safety of the cottage he has long shared with his bachelor brother Warnie (Edward Hardwicke in a lovely performance) and the campus -- a manly, wood-paneled preserve smelling of pipe smoke and brandy. Bragging that he has never lost an argument, he whets his wit on his equally cloistered and self-congratulatory colleagues and with kind pomposity intimidates all but the most rebellious of his students.

He finally meets his match in Gresham, a frank, female outsider who is undaunted by either Lewis or his quick-witted colleagues (Peter Firth and John Wood). Gresham, some 20 years younger than Lewis, has already introduced herself through her letters to Lewis, who agrees to see her when she visits Oxford.

Both Lewis and his brother are enchanted by this abrasive, rather awkward young woman, who arrives for a second visit with her 8-year-old son, Douglas (appealing Joseph Mazzello), in tow. A fan of Lewis's "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," Douglas is disappointed to find that Lewis's attic is without access to a magic land.

His mother, on the other hand, finds a way into this sweetly stuffy bachelor's heart. A sassy New Yorker with a Bronxy accent that tends to come and go, Gresham breaks through his defenses and Lewis finally realizes he loves her. It's too bad that she is such a crass American caricature -- as exemplified by her first meeting with the Lewis brothers. "Anybody here named Lewis?" she yells at startled scone munchers in a prim English tea room.

Winger, much better cast here than in "A Dangerous Woman," holds her own against Hopkins -- and nobody but nobody suffers with such obvious bravery as she can. Between them, she and Hopkins lend great tenderness and dignity to what is really a rather corny tale of a love that was meant to be. The rest is shadows.

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