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|Shawshank Redemption, The
by Andrew Howe
For most of us the future stretches as far as the eye can see, peppered with kaleidoscopic visions which provide us, in our lowest moments, with a reason to believe. So it is that we draw our plans, visualise our dreams, and ignore the bitter voice that dwells in the darkest reaches of our subconscious. Itís a melancholy melody, and the song it sings reminds us that it could all come crashing down like the proverbial house of cards, in no more time than it takes to pull a trigger, fumble the keys into the ignition, or watch a State Trooper walk the distance from the front gate to your door.Stephen King knows the truth of it, and in 1982 he put it down on paper in a novella entitled Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. It was (and still is) one of his few mainstream efforts, bereft of supernatural occurrences and graphic murders. Itís a deceptively simple tale of friendship, injustice and the indomitable human spirit, and King plays with our fears of living out our lives within four high walls like a master puppeteer, leaving us no choice but to become entwined in the fate of his protagonists.
"Some birds were never meant to be caged"
In 1987 a filmmaker by the name of Frank Darabont wrote to King and requested an option over the novella. King agreed, having been impressed by Darabontís 1983 adaptation of his short story The Woman in the Room, and seven years later The Shawshank Redemption was released to an audience that, having been burned by countless B-grade King adaptations, was entitled to expect the worst.
I know a great many people of varying tastes, and to this day there is exactly one film about which not one person has expressed a negative reaction, and with good reason. The Shawshank Redemption is a film about incarceration which transcends the genre, the combination of Kingís imagination, Darabontís flair for adaptation and a cadre of fine actors scything through the boundaries of age, class and philosophical inclination, leaving us with a near-perfect creation which proves that entertainment and depth donít have to be mutually exclusive.
The film concerns itself with a twenty-year friendship between Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a banker sentenced to life for the murder of his wife and her lover, and Ellis ďRedĒ Redding (Morgan Freeman), a con who has already been imprisoned for two decades when Dufresne arrives on the scene in 1947. The script charts Andyís attempts to build a new life on the inside, his refusal to lose faith contrasting with Reddingís weary resignation, and works its way to a bittersweet finale which proves that even Pyrrhic victories can be a source of satisfaction.
With this film (and later with The Green Mile) Darabont proved himself a master of the art of adaptation. I have long held that undue interference with the source work is a crime punishable by death, but there are times when liberties must be taken to improve its translation to a visual medium. Darabont takes those liberties and then some, changing characters (Redding was a white Irishman in the novella), scenes (the ending is extended past Kingís inconclusive finale) and dialogue (many of the best lines in the film are Darabontís), and in so doing polishes one of the jewels in Kingís crown until it shines. For this he is deserving of our highest praise, and every hack working the circuit today should look to him for inspiration, for with one monumental effort he proved that, provided you stay true to the spirit of the source, even the work of a master can be improved by the attentions of a talented screenwriter.
It would have all been for nothing, however, without the universally exceptional efforts of the cast. Whoever was responsible for recruiting the major players exhibited a great deal of faith, not the least in handing one of the lead roles to Robbins, who at the time had few high-profile performances to his name. Robbins is an unusual actor, for he seems at first glance to possess little screen presence or charisma, but he has a talent for getting under the viewerís skin which makes him the man of choice for certain roles. With Shawshank he found his Everest, and the result is one of the most note-perfect performances youíre ever likely to see.
Dufresne is not an immediately likeable character Ė he can seem a little detached, a perception which is enhanced by Robbinsí trademark self-assurance. He is, however, an immediately identifiable character, for his initial foray into prison life effectively recreates the experience you or I would be likely to endure. I couldnít beat off a trio of rapists or develop an instant rapport with my fellow convicts, and neither can Dufresne, so to anyone who has never wielded a lead-weighted pool cue in anger he assumes the guise of a kindred spirit. The result is a character who personifies our fear of being consigned to a ten-foot cell, alone with our fears and memories of happier times, left with nothing, as Red puts it, but ďall the time in the world to think about itĒ. It is this identification which lies at the core of the filmís success, and it is Robbinsí moving, measured performance that makes it work.
For an actor who didnít hit the big time until he was over 50, Morgan Freeman has stamped his authority on a surprisingly large number of films. Lean on Me, Glory, Driving Miss Daisy Ė none one of these would have been conceivable without his presence, and whenever the script calls for an elder statesman itís a sure bet that heís never far from the mind of the casting director. The sheer charisma of the man is all-but overpowering, an image heightened by Darabontís decision to utilise voiceovers to advance the narrative. These exquisitely-crafted monologues represent, along with Goodfellas, possibly the most memorable use of the technique in recent memory, and Freemanís grave, authoritative delivery is a wonder to behold. Barely ten minutes of screen time passes without comment, and itís a testament to his (and Darabontís) talents that it never becomes intrusive, but rather infuses the on-screen action with an even greater power than it would otherwise possess.
Special mention must also go to Freemanís ability to believably depict the effects of the passage of time. Red starts out as a reasonably-lively individual, but by the filmís conclusion is a man who has reached the tail-end of a long and trying life, and Freeman infuses him with a weariness which is almost tangible. Add to this his gloriously personable performance (especially in the first half) and a dedication to his character which defies any attempt to assert that heís merely playing a role, and youíve got an effort which, in a just world, would have seen him ascend the podium at the 1995 Academy Awards.
Elsewhere thereís much to like Ė the underused Bob Gunton is a delight as the corrupt warden, James Whitmore is almost painful to watch as the ancient Brooks (and that is intended as a compliment), and William Sadler (Heyward), Brian Libby (Floyd), Gil Bellows (Tommy) and Mark Rolston (Bogs) deserve statues in the bit-part hall of fame. However, the laurel wreath goes to Clancy Brown, who turns in an astonishing performance as Byron Hadley, a.k.a. the hardest screw ever to walk a turn at Shawshank State Prison. Brownís chiselled features, stone-cold expression and bass-laden voice ensure Hadley takes his rightful place as one of the most menacing hard-asses ever to storm his way across the silver screen, and he gets to deliver some of the most memorable tsunamis of profanity this side of Full Metal Jacket into the bargain (in one of lifeís little quirks, he reprised his role as a prison guard in The Hurricane, and proved that he's equally capable of portraying compassion. Strange days indeed.)
Despite the filmís extended running time (140 minutes), the scriptís pacing ensures it rarely flags. Thereís always something of interest going on, be it poignant, emotional exchanges between the characters, moments of hard-hitting (but never gratuitous) violence, or absorbing sequences backed by Redís narration. The film also contains some of the most memorable movie moments youíre ever likely to witness - Andyís rooftop showdown with Hadley, his impromptu operatic broadcast, Redís final parole hearing, the entire fifteen-minute climax (which actually comes a good ten minutes before the end of the film) Ė rarely has a single film presented such an array of riches for our viewing pleasure, and subsequent viewings only enhance its impact.
The film is, on occasion, a somewhat-depressing exercise: it is infused with the weight of wasted years, reminding us that we are granted but one life, and that to live that life in vain is a cause for sorrow which defies consolation. There is a difference between living and simply existing, a difference many of the inmates eventually lose sight of, and it may just get you thinking about your life, and the fact that not all walls can be seen with the naked eye.
Its dark undertones notwithstanding, the film is ultimately life-affirming, and not simply because of its soaring climax. Andy is a paragon of understated heroism, for he refuses to allow his sense of self-worth to join his freedom in the realms of distant memory. He may have lost everything he held dear, but he knows that life does not end until the day you draw your terminal breath, so he narrows his focus and takes refuge in his dreams of a better tomorrow. His existence reminds us of how much there is to lose, but also how much there is to gain, and is a source of solace for anyone who has ever felt their life begin to slip through their hands.
The script also makes an interesting point about human nature, in that the inmates are, by and large, reasonably likeable individuals. We never discover the exact nature of their crimes, for we are asked to judge them as they are, not for what they may have done. Good people sometimes do bad things, the film tells us, and all it takes is a single drunken argument which leaves a man dead to tarnish an entire life. Some may suggest that this approach denies the victims their due, but to dwell overlong on such an issue would have undermined the filmís central concerns. In any event, each of us is capable of deeds both admirable and reprehensible, and the scriptís approach to its characters is a thought-provoking recognition of our inherent duality.
As director Darabont is reasonably unobtrusive, which is just as well since his restrained approach suits the filmís subject matter (itís worth noting that the one scene in which he really lets loose, being an aerial shot of the prison towards the beginning of the film, is credited by Darabont to production designer Terence Marsh). Despite the absence of vibrant colours (it is set in a prison, after all) the film is still pleasing to the eye, largely due to the admirable lighting (both natural and artificial), and the memorable score is the perfect companion to the proceedings.
All of which goes some of the way towards justifying my belief that this is the greatest film ever committed to celluloid. I love this film, with a passion normally reserved for living, breathing entities, and the words it whispers resonate through the years, words which speak of friendship, regret and, most of all, hope. It tells us, in letters writ large, that our spirit will always be free, and when the closing credits roll I feel renewed, if only for the briefest of moments.ďGet busy living, or get busy dyingĒ. That, my friends, is goddamn right.
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originally posted: 02/28/01 19:53:14