REVIEW / For crying out loud: Sheila Johnston on Richard Attenborough's version of William Nicholson's play about romance late in the life of C S Lewis . . .

The world-famous author is embarrassed. An Oxford professor of English literature, he has developed a lucrative sideline in fantasy stories for children, without really knowing any, or feeling comfortable around people under four foot tall. Now he looks at the shy, upturned face awaiting his autograph. And he inscribes the proffered volume with the legend, 'the magic never ends'. It seems a funny, rather naff cliche, more the sort of thing you would expect to see on a Star Wars poster than the distilled wisdom of a high-faluting Oxford intellectual. The child's mother inspects the flyleaf sceptically. And she mutters, 'If it does, sue him.'

The writer was C S ('Jack') Lewis; the mother the brash, wisecracking American poet Joy Gresham, who seduced Lewis out of his comfy, pipe-and-slippered bachelordom, until the onset of her cancer brutally curtailed their autumnal, but passionate love affair. This unpromising material has furnished the playwright William Nicholson with the stuff of an acclaimed television drama, a stage play and, now, a movie. Its copyline runs: 'He thought that magic only existed in his books. And then he met her.'

It's not hard to see what drew Richard Attenborough to the story. It is a character-driven piece with two potent leading roles, and he is a former actor known for teasing outstanding performances from his cast. It is a relatively cheap and self-contained project, just the thing to chase the (undeservedly) poor reception of the big-budget Chaplin. And, if Shadowlands can't claim the mighty momentousness of Philadelphia or Schindler's List, it's still, like them, a heavy-duty weepy. Attenborough and Nicholson have elided a number of key emotional moments - Joy's request that Jack marry her, her cancer diagnosis - but make up for it, in spades, at the very end.

The film fastens a beady eye on the American market. It squeezes much dramatic mileage out of Oxford's dreaming spires and centuries-old traditions; from the opening sequence, you sense the cogs and wheels of the heritage industry purring away comfortably in top gear. But it also uses landscape cleverly to make dramatic points: at the beginning, it's all narrow, dark interiors - Oxford's secret quads and cloisters, Jack and his brother Warnie's pokey, low-ceilinged cottage, Joy's basement flat. These are the story's shadowlands, until it explodes, with a great sigh of relief, into sunlit new horizons - the Golden Valley in Herefordshire that the Lewises visit on their honeymoon and the big open vista of the film's last shot.

At the same time, Shadowlands exhibits a curious inferiority complex about Little England. Attenborough and Nicholson have created an insular place of pettifoggery and physical discomfort: John Wood is the kingpin of Oxford's gossipy, bitchy, all-male faculty, and hot-water-bottles in quaint knitted cosies stand in unsatisfactorily for central heating. It's up to the brash American to free everyone from inhibition and prejudice. In actuality, England in the early Fifties must have been a haven of freedom for her character, a former Communist, as it was for other Americans. But, as in Chaplin, the politics take a back seat.

The film does take a commercial risk, in sketching in some of the academic and spiritual background to their affair. Nicholson has cleverly woven Lewis's increasing emotional vulnerability into his polished performances on the lecture circuit. His first talk mentions a tragic accident in the news and concludes, rather smugly, 'I don't think God wants us to be happy. He gives us the gift of suffering.' Later, Joy catches him out glibly recycling a particularly duff aphorism from one of his books: 'Pain is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world,' and he has the grace to look sheepish. Another lecture, much later, shows how far his feelings have leaked into a loss of faith: 'If you love someone you don't want them to suffer.'

Anthony Hopkins is arresting and charismatic, too charismatic - you feel that he, and the film, have stayed well away from the murkier corners of the character's psyche (and even further from the real-life Lewis). Two pivotal scenes link his commitment to Joy to the onset of her illness, without ever seeming to acknowledge that there's something pretty creepy about a man who can only love a woman when he knows she's going to die. We have already seen him discoursing to students on the sublime delights of courtly love: 'the most intense joy lies not in the having, but in the desire'. It is fixated on the unattainable. He is attached to an object in the knowledge of its certain and imminent loss. Both forms of love are rooted in misogyny.

The film is especially uneasy on the subject of sex: the nuts and bolts of that would dispel its romantic haze. In one coy, uncomfortable little scene, Joy, already very ill, lying in one of two asymetrical single beds pushed hastily together for their wedding night, enlightens Jack on the correct 'procedure'. That is, to follow as exactly as possible his quiet routine - fishing out pyjamas from under pillow, cleaning teeth, praying, going to sleep - except that, as he nods off, she'll be there too.

The scene suggests that Jack is a virgin, that their love will remain necessarily celibate, even though, in life, Joy's remission lasted over two years and had even been taken for a full recovery - plenty long enough for the affair to be consummated. Lewis wrote of it that 'no cranny of heart or body remained unsatisfied'.

If you hadn't already heard Jack scoffing heartily at a Freudian reading of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe ('It's just magic]' he says of his work), you might be forgiven for finding a touch of Oedipus in his marriage. His honeymoon is also a regression: the Golden Valley they are obsessed with finding was a treasured picture in his nursery. And this is, we learn, the first time he has allowed himself to love somebody since the death of his mother when he was a small boy - the same age as Joy's own son. When the two sob their hearts out together, it's as if he had entered a second childhood, as if he were re-living his mother's death. The final shot shows stepfather and son bonding upliftingly. Joy has been replaced by a new pet dog.

The film shows Joy (played by the Oscar-nominated Debra Winger with a merry, wicked twinkle) as a no-nonsense lady who has no truck with reactionary romantic bullshit, but it also ends up wallowing in exactly those emotions. When Wood waffles on about 'where men have intellects, women have souls,' she sends him off with a flea in his ear ('Are you trying to be offensive or merely stupid?'), but at her (horribly painful) death the camera dissolves to an distant exterior of the cottage, then draws back into the sky, like a soul taking flight.

Her character is meant to bring a breath of fresh air into Jack's musty world, but her death is also viewed as a liberation for all concerned. And yet the film sees nothing perverse in the relationship: its couple is as glorious, unreal, in short magical as any in Hollywood. The debate about Shadowlands so far has mostly remained on the 'did-you-cry?' level. I like to imagine the shade of Joy Gresham, muttering down to us out of the corner of her mouth, 'If you don't bawl your eyes out, sue 'em.'

(Photograph omitted)

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