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C. S. Lewis is content to live as he has always done,
To teach and study, chat with colleagues, answer questions he presents.
He is happy to debate on arguments he knows he’s won.
Both he and Oxford rarely change, for they’ve got all the common sense.
Then in 1952, he meets Joy Gresham, who’s a fan,
A poet and American who leaves him speechless now and then.
Soul and intellect converge to make her special to this man,
Whose own experience with love is only in his reading den.
Fleeting visits with her son endear her to the author till
Divorce allows them to relocate to the London she admires.
By entreaty, Lewis marries Joy, a sign of their good will,
But even then he does not see the happiness that she inspires.
Sadly, Joy is cancer-stricken, and the promise of her loss
Convinces Lewis that he loves her deeply, though he knows not how.
He requests a holy marriage as he helps her bear her cross.
When she recovers for a time, they both are faithful to their vow.
Honeymooning is idyllic until Joy reminds instead
That as a part of happiness, they can’t ignore the coming grief.
Death arrives, and life goes on despite the tears her darlings shed.
Experience best helps us learn of truest love, however brief.

Shadowlands is one of the purest and most poignant of biographical romances. From the popular Narnia series to the insightful The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis (Jack, to his friends) ranks among my favorite authors, and no one could bring him to life like Anthony Hopkins. Coming only two years after his star-making role in The Silence of the Lambs, there is no trace of the deranged serial killer here; instead, Hopkins embodies Lewis’s intelligence, wisdom, and genuine surprise at the advent of love. Oscar nominee Debra Winger may have seemed like an odd choice to portray his beloved Joy Gresham (pen name Joy Davidman), but their interactions have a warmth and reality that gradually morphs their professional respect into personal chemistry.

The late Richard Attenborough was a skilled director, but even his Oscar-winning Gandhi does not compare to Shadowlands. Instead of the sweeping view of a legendary life, he gives us a quiet, contemplative story of unexpected romance that, to me and my VC, is much more moving and intimate. The direction is understated but beautiful throughout, allowing emotions, reverence, and beauty to permeate every scene. On top of all that, the script is intelligent, being based on William Nicholson’s TV and stage productions.

Early monologues by Lewis establish his views on pain as “God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world,” but he has never experienced such pain since childhood. His attachment to and loss of Joy might have made him contradict his prior beliefs, but even when his and Douglas’s faith is shaken, it isn’t repudiated. Rather, the main intellectual conflict is the disparity between knowledge and experience, without either really negating the other. It’s a classic case of “easier said than done”; philosophizing is fine on one level, but experience challenges the detached serenity with which Lewis views the world as an Oxford professor. His prior lesson still applies, but the moral difficulty of pain becomes more real when it is endured firsthand. Even when we know the suffering yet to come, we love anyway, a mystery of being human that even Lewis could not fully explain.

At the beginning, the film claims that “This is a true story,” which is only mostly true. It does omit Joy’s other son David Gresham, only depicting the more well-known Douglas (played by young Joseph Mazzello, who was in Jurassic Park that same year). Also, the film focuses on Lewis’s academic and personal life without touching on his literary life: he published numerous books during the film’s events, including several Narnia installments. Even so, the story is undeniably powerful, though it is rather slow and best watched when one is fully awake, eating, or both. My VC, who “adores” Anthony Hopkins in this rare romantic leading role, would rank Shadowlands in her top 50 and just recently was able to view it without crying. Beautiful and heartbreaking, Shadowlands is Attenborough’s masterpiece.

Best line: (Harry, a friend) “Christopher can scoff, Jack, but I know how hard you’ve been praying, and now God is answering your prayers.”   (Lewis) “That’s not why I pray, Harry. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God; it changes me.”

VC’s best line: (Lewis, to Joy) “Will you marry this foolish, frightened old man… who needs you more than he can bear to say… who loves you, even though he hardly knows how?”

Rank: 54 out of 60

© 2014 S. G. Liput

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