If you want a good cry, a really good cry, watch the amazing Anthony Hopkins. Watch his staid, removed C.S. Lewis summon the courage to forsake insular bachelorhood in the name of love, only to have it tragically taken away when the spirited, forthright woman who's made an honest man of him in so many ways succumbs to cancer. Since the woman is Debra Winger's Joy Gresham and the director is Sir Richard Attenborough, you know you can sit back and relax (well, tear up), even if the movie, Shadowlands, is thoroughly familiar and frequently cliched.
A fictional rendering of the real-life affair of the mind that became one of the heart between the famous Christian apologist author from Oxford and an expatriate minor American poet, Shadowlands makes up in emotional weight for what it lacks in original substance.
The movie's impressive pedigree extends far beyond the A-list trinity. From director of photography Roger Pratt (Mona Lisa, Brazil) to editor Lesley Walker (Waterland, The Fisher King), Attenborough has stockpiled accomplished craftspeople. It was a smart move on the part of this insightful, Oscar-winning director (of Gandhi and Oh! What a Lovely War), because Hopkins is saddled with speechifying to packed auditoriums that "pain is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world," giving his Oxford students the good fight and, after his beloved dies, admitting to himself that "experience is a brutal teacher, but you learn, my God, you learn."
About Gresham's death: It takes up half the film, complete with chemo, remission, ambulances, a hospital-bed wedding, and death-bed advice that he'll have to let her go. Attenborough helped William Nicholson's script (which was based on his play) as much as he could.
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So, Shadowlands looks great. It's set in and around gloriously refined Oxford and the lovely English countryside: We sit at the university's decorous mealtables and attend its sacrosanct chapel, go to an English pub with the old boys' network of Oxford dons, reside with Lewis and his equally fastidious brother Warnie (Edward Hardwicke) at a quaint country cottage, and take a honeymoon trip to a rustic country inn overlooking rolling green valleys. Production designer Stuart Craig (Dangerous Liaisons, The Mission, The Secret Garden) even makes rain beautiful. Lots of money was spent on academic regalia and tweeds, too.
The biggest obstacle in Shadowlands is that you can see everything coming. Gresham has a little boy (Joseph Mazzello), is a divorcee and first marries Lewis for British citizenship; Lewis's peers are scandalized when, after one (John Wood) asserts that men have intellect and women soul, she demands, "Are you trying to be offensive or just merely stupid?"; Lewis is apprehensive about love because he's afraid of suffering. But these obvious machinations aren't what make Shadowlands effective.
The sentiments do. With thoughtful eyes and nuanced voice, Hopkins is astounding (will he win another Oscar here or for The Remains of the Day?), encompassing the full range of human emotion, from the hesitant smile of a man who keeps order in his mind to one who rails against death, crying three times, once even gloriously heaving. Winger, although encumbered by a Brooklyn accent that fades in and out, is earthy and pragmatic, and very much has Lewis's measure. The rest of the cast is a virtual Who's Who of English theater.
Sweet, sad Shadowlands addresses Lewis's question, "Why love, if losing hurts so much?" If you want the answer, don't bring a tissue; take a box.