Warning lights ought to flash in every filmgoer's head any time the words "based on a true story" or "adapted from a play" are used to promote a motion picture. A true story is one thing, but based on a true story -- that's like the difference between 100 percent fruit juice and a "juice drink." Either the filmmakers are playing fast and loose with the facts or they're missing critical pieces of information and have decided to improvise. Better to consume fiction that labels itself as such. And movies adapted from plays can usually be summed up in two words: Slow. Talky.
Shadowlands may be the exception that proves the rule. It's based on a true story and was adapted from a play by William Nicholson. True to form, the movie is, at times, slow and talky. Fortunately, Shadowlands also is distinguished by scintillating dialogue and a clutch of showy performances, from leads Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger to Edward Hardwicke and John Wood in supporting roles. Fans of Howards End and Remains of the Day should be especially thrilled; Shadowlands comes as close to a Merchant-Ivory production as you can get without the involvement of either Ismail Merchant or James Ivory.
Winger plays Joy Gresham, a feisty (granted, it's hard to think of a role where Winger didn't trade on spunk, but this time out she adds some refinements to the patented strong-willed-woman-with-a-serious-illness shtick she developed for Terms of Endearment) American poet struggling to survive a failing marriage and to raise a son. Over the years she has been corresponding with her literary hero C.S. Lewis, renowned Oxford professor and author. While vacationing in London, Gresham meets her idol. Lewis politely invites the woman and her son over to his place for tea (Lewis confides to his brother Warnie -- dryly underplayed by Hardwicke -- "One can always be so much more friendly to people who can't stay long"), and, to their surprise, the dynamic mother and the stuffy man of letters become friends.
She's sarcastic and adventurous, he's reflective and sedate, but they share a restless intelligence and develop a mutual admiration. (Lewis's inscription on the boy's copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: "The magic never ends." Gresham's advice to her son: "If it does, sue him.") Their ensuing platonic relationship creates a stir among Lewis's staid Oxford colleagues, led by Wood as acerbic professor Christopher Riley, who teases Lewis that the latter's life's work is "the manufacture and supply of easy answers to difficult questions." In one of the film's best scenes, Riley insults the brash American with a dash of thinly veiled sarcasm. Gresham not only picks up on the slight but returns fire in kind, leaving the nonplused academician sputtering for words.
Anthony Hopkins tinkers only slightly with his Stevens the butler character from Remains of the Day to portray C.S. Lewis. Why meddle with success? His performance here is a shade or two broader, less restrained, and riskier than in Remains, but the similarities outweigh the differences. Both men are reserved bachelors who have created ordered worlds for themselves and are living contented lives until a spirited woman crashes the party and forces them to consider poking their heads out of the shell. Stevens is too afraid to follow his heart and becomes a lonely man because of it; Lewis risks it all for love, and his life is transformed.
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Gresham draws Lewis out gradually. As their relationship slowly progresses from platonic friendship to romantic love (even after she goes back to America, divorces, and returns to London, the two remain just friends; it is an unexpected tragedy that forces them to realize the depth of their affection for one another), she realizes how thoroughly this man has insulated himself from his feelings by creating a world filled with intellectual pursuits. Her challenge is to rescue him from the self-imposed emotional isolation without traumatizing him in the process.
It's a protracted battle. The two engage in much banter over the relative merits of firsthand experience versus learning from books, but in the end she convinces him that to experience the heights of happiness, one must be vulnerable to pain. Once again, you can be forgiven for thinking of Remains of the Day. The theme of both films is essentially the same.
The differences between the two pictures are, like the differences between Hopkins's performances, much subtler. Shadowlands is funnier and less restrained and when it finally goes for the tear ducts, Shadowlands lets it all hang out. The dialogue is punchier, although it's still a long way from Pauly Shore country. And of course there's quintessentially American Debra Winger instead of quintessentially British Emma Thompson.
Even the titles fit the pattern. In the movies, as in life, the Remains of the Day ultimately recede into the Shadowlands.