I must confess that I had actually avoided seeing The Shawshank Redemption for quite some time. Somehow, a Stephen King prison tale brought to the screen did not seem to appeal to my uppity cinematic radar. And I certainly wasn’t alone; during the film’s original ten-week run, it made just a little over $16 million. How terribly wrong we all were.
The story centers on Andy Dufrense, a quiet banker wrongfully convicted of two murders. Andy is sent to Shawshank State Penitentiary, where he comes to the attention of Ellis “Red” Redding, an ingenious contraband smuggler serving a life sentence. Over a period of twenty years, he learns to adapt to the monotony of prison life, and even earns the respect of his fellow inmates. More importantly, Dufrense keeps within him a deep sense of hope; an indestructible faith that things will ultimately turn out all right.
The majority of filming took place at the Ohio State Reformatory, a historic prison located in Mansfield. The facility, a rich combination of Romanesque, English Baroque and Victorian Gothic, plays perhaps the most important part in setting the scene of the film. The sweeping aerial shot, the first real look we get of Shawshank, is a magnificent one. As the drab crowds of blue and grey make their way to the entrance, craning their necks to get a look at the ‘fresh meat’, we realise the significance of this beautiful, crumbling complex. It is these stone walls that tower over not only our characters but the film itself; serving as a constant reminder of our hero’s bleak and helpless situation.
Another key point I should make about the movie’s setting is the composition of its interior shots, and, in particular, the one which show the morning after Andy’s first night in the prison. A bell summons the inmates from their cells and the bars slide open with a creaky reluctance. The prisoners begin to form little rows on each level, then proceed to ‘roll out’; in other words, shuffle quietly in rather disconcerting lines. The result: aimless rows of ‘institutionlised’ men, framed with the neat, artificial lines of a prison. Everything in the scene is straight and ordered, highlighting the rigidness of Andy’s new life.
This leads me on very well to an important theme that resonates throughout the film: freedom and institutionlisation. In the previous paragraph, I talked about the obvious lack of freedom in Shawshank, and how the men of the prison ultimately became used to this way of life. One example of this is Brooks Hatlen, the elderly prison librarian who is referred to in my title. The character is freed on parole, but is unable to adjust to life on the outside after fifty years as a prisoner. In short, he couldn’t live without the condescending instruction of a warden.
This element of the film also allows us to reflect on institutionlisation itself, and how it is not just in prisons from the distant past that it exists. We can see this phenomenon in all aspects of everyday life. From the clothes we wear to the things we say, human beings feel a need to conform, the question is only to what extent.
On the other hand though, Andy Dufrense is a stark contrast to this desolate image. Even in prison, Andy is free because of his determination and undying hope. The scene in which Andy plays a record in triumph, allowing every inmate to hear the music, is symbolic. If you can find faith and hang on to it unflinchingly, you will never be completely lost.
The Shawshank Redemption is a wonderfully moving film, with two beautiful performances from Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman at its head. The alleged flaws of the film: overtly sympathetic prisoners and an implausible ending, can easily be written off. Modern audiences seem to take particular delight in dismissing goodness and heroism as worn-out clichés, but I think that a film like Shawhank, a truly charming and inspirational tale, doesn’t come along too often.