After a few years of correspondence, two people make arrangements for tea at a little café in Oxford. The trouble is, they’ve never met before, and thus have no idea what the other looks like. Joy Gresham walks into the room, and after consulting a rather unobliging waiter, sees no way of identifying the mystery man. As a last resort, she calls out in her charmingly brash New York accent: “Anybody here called Lewis?”. The entire room falls silent. C.S Lewis — “Jack” to friends and family — raises his hand meekly, waving her over. Earlier, he had remarked that after an hour or so of polite conversation, everything would go on just as it always had. We certainly know better.
The success of Shadowlands begins with the perceptive casting of Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger; the pair seem just as unlikely a couple as Jack Lewis and Joy Gresham, two brilliant writers hailing from different sides of the Atlantic. As the bachelor who discovers romance in the autumn of his life, Hopkins delivers an understated, endearing and ultimately emotive performance. Winger is equally compelling, effusing into Joy such a wonderful combination of intensity and tenderness that it’s hard not to be swept away by this sentimental little narrative. Sure the Bronx accent comes and goes (and comes and goes some more), and sure she looks nothing like the real-life Joy Gresham, but frankly while I watched I neither cared nor actually registered that such problems existed at all. As the film goes on, we see glimpses of her shattering insight; her warm affection for her son; and her sense of fun and passion for life. We grow to love her, just as Jack slowly begins to do. He just doesn’t know it; or perhaps he doesn’t know quite know what to do with it.
For Jack has been leading a sheltered and unperturbed existence all his life. He is an Oxford don, a renowned theologian, and the writer of a series of children’s books beloved throughout the world. We can picture him day after day seated in an armchair and smoking his pipe, possessing all the answers to every question that comes his way. Wildly exciting it isn’t, but it is a life that he knows how to navigate. And then along come these rather confounding feelings of love — for an outspoken and somewhat challenging American no less. Still life wears quietly on for the professor, until one day Joy is struck terminally ill. In the face of her impending death, Jack realises that he can’t imagine life without her.
This encounter with heartbreak prompts the recollection of another tragic moment in Jack’s life. We are reminded that at the age of only 9, Jack Lewis lost his mother to cancer. Although we never see this, its consequences seem to hang over the rest of the film. The young boy chose to deal with the end of the world as he knew it by entering into an illusion. In order to ignore and escape his grief, he fashioned another world – a fantasy world whose finite perfection he could take solace in. He isolated himself from all those around him for fear of ever feeling such fervent sorrow again. We return back to the present day, and remember that Jack Lewis ultimately became a Christian; perhaps ironically, one that seemed to be an expert on the subject of suffering. “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world,” he triumphantly asserts. Yet he himself is excused conveniently from the call of God — for still he hangs on to the safety of isolation. And still he writes his magical stories. It is Joy who uncovers his nagging doubts and deep-seated fears; and it is Joy who breathes happiness into his world just as she must prepare him for immense torment.
There is a particularly lovely sequence during which the couple make a trip to The Golden Valley in Herefordshire. We are told a story — seemingly insignificant at first — of how the place got its name. It turns out that the conquering Normans confused the welsh dŵr, meaning ‘water’, with ‘d’or, which was their word for gold. Somehow the name stuck, and down to the very painting of the valley that hangs in Jack’s home, the place has ever since been seen as a haven of wonder and spirituality. As a child, Jack had even believed that the picture was a scene of heaven itself. On a whim, Joy asks him to take her there. Jack is initially apprehensive, until he sees the valley for himself.
The Golden Valley does not feature in the original television film of the same name or the later stage play. In fact, the real-life Jack Lewis and Joy Gresham never visited the valley at all. Yet I believe the incorporation of the concept into this movie to be one of the best decisions of William Nicholson, the writer of all three versions. As Jack gazes at the valley with Joy by his side, he realises something patently obvious: the valley is not gold, but a gently luscious green. Instead of a golden heaven, he is looking at hope and pure vitality. In that moment, he learns to break away from the untouchable ideals of a world beyond, and to surrender all his fears of a dark future ahead. Jack is gripped by the immediacy of the present and the real; he is offered a chance for joy that will soon be lost, and he has the courage to take it.
The distinctive rhythm of Richard Attenborough’s storytelling is truly remarkable. Especially in the final act, we can almost see the movement of conflict and tension; each scene is more fervent, more desperate than the last. While the film begins with images in pretty pastel colours, underscored predominantly with a warm melody, during the final climax we are slapped suddenly by a violent crimson. Although we had known it to be inevitable, tragedy in all its ceaseless silence is exceptionally haunting. Then, with enormous care and nuance, Attenborough brings us out again from these shadowlands. Like the characters themselves, we are taken on a journey throughout the course this film; we learn of love, faith, suffering and finally its eventual acceptance. It may be dressed in the threads of a tear-jerker, but Shadowlands presents us with an flawless marriage between the heart and the mind — something all great art should strive to achieve.