Anthony Hopkins delivers yet another towering performance in “Shadowlands,” a touching, fictionalized account of a late-in-life love between English writer and scholar C.S. Lewis and Joy Gresham, an American poet. Positive word of mouth and favorable reviews are crucial in making Richard Attenborough’s sensitive exploration of love popular beyond the circle of viewers who frequent literary British cinema.
Contrary to popular notion, “Shadowlands” shows there are second acts — and significant ones at that — in people’s lives. Set in the early 1950s, it’s a quiet, pensive tale of two eccentric individuals whose personae, lifestyles, and cultures couldn’t have been more different.
A middle-aged bachelor, Hopkins is a reserved, repressed intellectual, who lives an orderly life with his brother Warnie (Edward Hardwicke) and spends his leisure time with his male colleagues in a most habitual manner. For years, he’s been the literary hero of Joy Gresham (Debra Winger), a feisty, straightforward American who is in the process of recovering from a failed marriage to an alcoholic.
After years of quiet admiration and correspondence with Hopkins, Winger decides to take her son Douglas (Joseph Mazzello) and visit Hopkins in London. At first, the relationship is formal and restrained, but gradually, it evolves into intimate friendship, romantic love and, ultimately, marriage.
Their liaison causes something of a stir, however, for Winger is an outsider par excellence: She’s not only a woman, but an American Jew whose outspoken and uninhibited behavior defies Oxford’s rigid sensibility. By today’s standards, Winger’s trips to England may not be daring, but at the time, she was perceived as an adventurous woman who refused to be intimidated by a sexist, male-dominated bastion and challenged its notion of a “woman’s place.”
Focusing on their private lives, “Shadowlands” doesn’t provide much info about the creative process; as the story unfolds, one almost forgets that Lewis is a world-renowned writer of children’s novels. The film effectively captures the isolation and insulation — intellectual and emotional — of British academic life. But it also suggests that the act of reading can provide solace and comfort and even change one’s life.
Up to the last reel, the film resists sentimentality, but then it succumbs to a level of a slow, old-fashioned — even heavy-handed — melodrama that negates its earlier matter-of-fact tone. Still, even when Winger is stricken with a fatal disease, the movie emphasizes the hopeful, strong dimensions of the mutual attraction. Indeed, both individuals change radically as a result of their bond: In deep crisis when they meet, the spirited Winger finds a new directions in her life, and Hopkins lets his guard down.
It’s a testament to the nuanced writing of William Nicholson, who adapted his stage play, after successful productions in London and Broadway (and a BBC telefilm in ’86, with Claire Bloom and Joss Ackland), that the drama works effectively on both personal and collective levels.
Hopkins and Winger represent divergent cultures: the reserved and controlled British versus the open and emotional American. Ultimately though, the film’s greatest achievement is that neither comes across as an abstraction of type.
Attenborough opts for modest, unobtrusive direction that serves the material and actors. Production values are accomplished in every department, particularly Roger Pratt’s on-location lensing of Oxford, Magdalen College and its old chapel.
Hopkins adds another laurel to his recent achievements. As always, there’s music in his speech and nothing is over-deliberate or forced about his acting. In fact, Hopkins here renders a more emotional and flexible performance than in “The Remains of the Day,” his previous, equally impressive, work.
Coming off years of desultory and unimpressive movies, Winger at last plays a role worthy of her talent, though her character is less complex. Occasionally, as in a scene in which she tells off a sexist instructor, Winger uses her natural sarcastic voice to great advantage.
The entire British supporting cast is glorious, from Edward Hardwicke as the quiet brother, to Michael Denison as the Reverend, Peter Firth as the doctor, and particularly, John Wood as the acerbic professor.
A mature film for grown-ups, “Shadowlands” demonstrates the emotional fear of love, but also its magical power to transform one’s life. The film says that to experience happiness and intimacy, one must risk exposure, vulnerability — and pain.