There’s a painstaking exactness to “The Shawshank Redemption” that is both laudable and exhausting. The 19 years that the film’s protagonist spends behind prison walls is a term shared by the audience. It’s vivid, grueling and painful, and passes with the appropriate tedium and sudden bursts of horror that one imagines reflect the true nature of incarceration. Definitely a film requiring careful nurturing, “Shawshank” will need critical kudos and year-end honors to maintain slow but consistent box office.
Mostly one is drawn along by the fascinating portrait and the innate humanity of its inmate principals. But it’s a long, serious haul (albeit leavened by humor and the unexpected) that will put a crimp in the pic’s mainstream acceptance.
The saga begins in 1947, when bank vice president Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) goes on trial for the murder of his wife and her lover. Though he strenuously maintains his innocence, his dispassionate demeanor grates on the court. Circumstantial evidence proves enough to land him in Shawshank Prison with two concurrent life sentences.
While it’s unquestionably Andy’s story, the chronicle is related in voiceover by “Red” (Morgan Freeman), a lifer who’s set himself up as someone who can get “things” from the outside. He marvels at the new man’s tenacity, knowing intrinsically that Andy is different and that he likes him, quirks and all.
While the film pays close attention to such requisite matters as sexual assault, staff brutality and the human capacity to survive, it has something quite different on its mind. It’s consumed by circumstance and life’s little ironies, which occur even in prison.
The turning point for Andy and his cronies is a bit of conversation captured during a work detail. A guard bemoans the fact that Uncle Sam will take a healthy bite of a recently deceased relative’s legacy. The ex-banker plucks up his courage and tells him how to keep the windfall. For a moment it’s like Androcles pulling the thorn from the lion’s paw.
Soon Andy is put to work in all manner of financial activity. He is Warden Norton’s (Bob Gunton) crown jewel and the source of both an enhanced public image for the man and a quietly acquired personal fortune. It’s not lost on the convicted murderer that he had to enter prison to learn dishonesty.
Gaining a more comfortable life behind bars proves a double-edged sword. The warden cannot afford to have Andy paroled. The man knows too much, and he is too valuable an asset. So, when the prospect of the truth rears its head, extreme measures come into play.
Ultimately, “The Shawshank Redemption” is about the dominance of real justice. That element of the narrative keeps themovie from descending into abject resignation.
Writer/director Frank Darabont adapts his source material with sly acuity. It’s a fiendishly clever construct in which seemingly oblique words or incidents prove to have fierce resonance. Darabont errs only when he digresses too long on a supporting character or embellishes a secondary story.
Central to the film’s success is a riveting, unfussy performance from Robbins. Precise, honest and seamless, it appears virtually uncalculated. It is the anchor keeping the piece from foundering.
Freeman has the showier role, allowing him a grace and dignity that come naturally. It’s a testament to his craft that the performance is never banal. Supporting work is uniformly strong, with Gunton and Clancy Brown, as a vicious guard, extremely credible in their villainy.
Tech credits are strong, with Roger Deakins’ images and Thomas Newman’s original score providing just the right balance between the somber and the absurd. Terence Marsh’s sets — on an actual prison location — capture the mustiness and permanence of the environment with aplomb.
A testament to the human spirit, the film is a rough diamond. Its languors are small quibbles in an otherwise estimable and haunting entertainment.