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Classic Films Revisited - A Return To Shawshank
The Shawshank Redemption
Directed by Frank Darabont 
Starring Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, William Sadler,

    Long is the way
    And hard, that out of hell leads up to light.
            John Milton, Paradise Lost.

Salvation lies within: just one of the many gems of dialogue that linger in the mind and resonate within the soul long after leaving the prison they call Shawshank, or should that be escaping, for Frank Darabont's leisurely paced film offers a feeling of release unparalleled in recent cinema--but we will get to that soon enough.  The Shawshank Redemption was released in 1994 and was criminally ignored by the Oscars, yet as all the finest films are, this would be the highest of accolades. While it failed to net a clutch of golden baldies, the picture cemented the careers of Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman as actors to keep your eye on, the latter in particular being cast for his genuine talent rather than for the color of his skin. The film also marked out its director as a talent of significant worth: Darabont may have recently replayed the story with the release of The Green Mile, which was also adapted from a Stephen King text and set in a prison, but was a much darker, expansive work. Its sentimentality was undercut by its graphic scenes of execution, and it refused to offer any ham-fisted moral generalizations on the issue of crime and punishment, simply because there are none. What it did offer was an emotionally engaging picture that may have occasionally veered towards sentimentality, but still provoked as much righteous anger as five other movies. 

Similarly, The Shawshank Redemption had its fair share of ugly moments and did not shy away from the nasty things that go on in men's prisons--any scene involving the 'sisters' is enough to give the hardiest of blokes the wiggins. Yet, these darker sights are never exploitative or employed for shock effect alone; this is a movie that celebrates the durability of the human spirit, yet salvation, or redemption, will never be achieved with some sort of sacrifice. The cathartic element of the picture is all the more uplifting for the nastiness that we have to endure to get there, and paradoxically, it is an experience that you will want to live over again. The inherent nature of The Shawshank Redemption is such that it opens up new chapters with repeated viewing. Previously throwaway lines of dialogue now splinter with meaning, hinting slyly at events to come, nodding surreptitiously towards that magical ending. Put simply, God is in the details, and it is important that dialogue should play such an important role in the film--this lends the picture a rich literary feel that bristles with strong characterization, a picture very much from the old-school of cinema.

But, we are getting ahead of ourselves here, so it is probably time to backtrack a little--as the only conventional way to breakout of a prison is through the entrance, that is where we shall begin. Set in the mid-1940's, Tim Robbins plays Andy DuFresne, a quiet financial whiz who just may have killed his wife and her secret lover. Consequently, he is charged with two life sentences and thrown into the darkened halls of Shawshank, a foreboding hulk of a building that nobody has ever escaped from. Most prisoners are refused parole or die within its high walls, and therefore the chances do not look good. Yet, DuFresne's sombre quietness wins him the respect and friendship of fellow inmate Red (Freeman), a man who 'knows how to get things': from small luxuries like cigarettes and girly mags to other more unique objects, Red is the man. At first Andy and Red do business, but their relationship develops into one of mutual dependency that forms the emotional core of the film. 

But not all things inside Shawshank are as pleasant or dependable as a friendship--Andy's meek nature wins him the unwanted affection of the 'sisters', a gang of 'bull-queers' who prey on the weaker members of the prison, bullying their victims into unpleasant acts. While Darabont shies away from explicit depiction of the attacks on Andy, the unsavory details are not kept from us, and it is difficult not to feel a sensation of glee when the sisters get what's coming to them. Further villains are supplied in the form of the chief warden and his henchman, the prison guard who administers regular beatings to subordinate prisoners. Andy's financial background as a vice-president for a bank cannot be kept a secret for very long, and soon he is required to use his accountant talents inside the prison. This is the beginning of a series of events that unfolds slowly--but never tediously--a story that builds confidently to a climax that would warm the heart of the most cynical of viewers. 

Essentially about triumph in the face of great adversity, The Shawshank Redemption is a deeply spiritual work. Despite its profanity and occasional bursts of violence, it offers a glimpse of how people deal with hardship and find the confidence and sly means to outdo their corrupt master--the mind is truly more powerful than the truncheon. What makes the film so engaging is its sheer scope of character, the people that Andy meets and interacts with as he spends his time in prison. All of the supporting characters are fleshed out with personality traits and quirks so we are never allowed to forget their essential humanity. Brooks is a tragic, aged criminal who cannot cope with life in the outside world simply because it 'moves too darn fast', Red is a true gentleman who regrets his foolish crime some twenty years before, even the chief warden is allowed to have a personality outside the traditional caricature of a baddie. All of these characters are treated with such dignity and respect for the performing art that it seems improbable that the picture did not glean any more awards. 

But it has won a place in a great number of viewers' hearts--this astute sense of characterization is complemented by a series of fine set pieces, which are mostly orchestrated by Andy and provide the dramatic structure of the film: the tarring of the prison roof, the erection of the library and of course, that brilliant final reel. Movies of recent days have been heralded by a fantastic, last-minute twist that is seemingly more important than the film itself. In contrast, the last ten minutes or so of The Shawshank Redemption make perfect sense of the rest of the picture, breaking down narrative walls that we hadn't even noticed before and offering a series of  false endings that make you want the film to keep on going, not to stop just yet. 

Ultimately, despite its scenes of inhumanity and abuse, the lasting message of The Shawshank Redemption is one of hope, that hope is a good thing, perhaps the best of things. The picture points towards a quality residing inside the human soul that will not back down and say how high to an evil force, but instead affirms the integral maxim that while fear can keep you prisoner, hope will set you free. Just as the love of God, our sense of hope and redemption, was bought by grace and the death of Christ, so Shawshank can only be exited and exorcised by some sort of sacrifice. The physical and metaphysical river of foulness that Andy must crawl through to see the light is deeply symbolic, but the feeling of release on the other side is all the more sweet for it. 

The Shawshank Redemption is one of those special films with a tangible quality of greatness that you can't put your finger on, but you know that it is there, as well as being one that reaffirms our faith in society and in the power of hope, whether that hope be found in God or ourselves. Hope is a good thing, perhaps the best of things, and if a film can remind us of that fact, then it is worth more than a thousand Oscars. 

Ross Thompson 09/5/2000

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