The Shawshank Redemption is a most unusual film. Produced from a Stephen King short story (an author known for horror), directed by a first timer, and starring a group of relatively unknown actors - how the film rose to become an accepted classic of the silver screen is a fascinating story.
I originally saw the film when it was released in the cinema, and like many at the time I came out of the screening feeling totally underwhelmed. I found the pace slow and boring, the story unlikely, and the ending (which was changed from the source story) was too “Hollywood” for my liking. It would seem that the academy agreed that year, showering praise on the supposedly ground breaking Forrest Gump, whilst ignoring Darabont's prison drama.
But, amongst many other things, The Shawshank Redemption is about playing the long game. It is about quietly working towards an ultimate goal that isn't obvious from the outset. I am not saying that Darabont deliberately set out to make a film that would eventually become recognised as one of the best films of all time, but indeed that is the status the film currently enjoys. Routinely rated alongside The Godfather as the top film on IMDB, thanks to VHS and DVD - Shawshank has, indeed, been redeemed from its original box officer failure.
After finding its audience on both previous home formats, The Shawshank Redemption returns for a third assault on our living rooms via the medium of Blu-ray. We will look at the technical details, as usual, in the later sections of this review, but for that one person reading this who has yet to see this film - tradition dictates that I review the film first
Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is a wreck. He is drunk, sitting in a car, loading a gun. His wife is inside the house, riding the local golf pro. Andy plans to shoot them both in drunken revenge. This is all shown in the prologue, intercut with the trial where he is fighting a murder charge. He gets out of the car, some bullets fall on to the ground, and he staggers towards the house. That is the last we see of the act itself, the judge proclaims him guilty, and he is sent to Shawshank Prison for a life sentence.
When he arrives at the prison, he meets several colourful characters, including Red (Morgan Freeman), and Brooks (James Whitmore). He also has the misfortune to come across a savage guard (Clancy Brown) and the corrupt Prison Warder (Bob Gunton). After a savage beating of another in-mate it soon becomes clear that Shawshank is not a pleasant prison to be in
Andy is cold and distant, fighting his own battles quietly and with an inner strength that is not always obvious. Over time, however, he begins to bond with Red, the prison fixer. Once he has begun to settle into prison life, he also spots an opportunity to get in with the guards, running the prison finances, and maximising profit for the warden. All settles into the usual prison routine, until a shattering denoument that proves that however bad things might get, it is always important to hold on to hope.
The Shawshank Redemption is a true modern miracle of a film, and I am still kicking myself that I did not recognise this when I was originally watching it in the cinema. It is easy to see why the film is such a success, and that is because everything about the film is quite simply perfect. The acting is flawless. Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman put in beautiful, understated performances in the two lead roles, and every actor puts in fantastic support to these two. James Whitmore as Brooks may have the most showy of the support roles, most notably a key scene which will reduce even the strongest of hearts to tears, but it is not just him that shines in this cast. Clancy Brown, an actor previously seen as The Kurgan in Highlander is fantastic as the sadistic prison guard, and the warden (Bob Gunton) is a perfect portrayal of a man corrupted by power.
One of the reasons why the acting is so good, is that the characters are given room to breathe and develop by a script that is masterfully written, and a pacing that gives time where many other films would not. This is not a film that is concerned with events, as much as the passage of time and how relationships develop - and this is what this film manages to present perhaps more successfully than many others. Whether it is the obvious relationship between Red and Andy, or between the warden and power, or Andy and his surroundings - all are beautifully conveyed through the script and direction.
Darabont marked himself out as a true talent with this film, and he has such a close relationship with the source material that he manages to bring true emotion to the screen. Despite the rather static nature of the film, Darabont still brings a visual flare to the screen. You only have to witness the superb shot as the prison is first revealed in all its horrendous glory to see the vision that the director has. Even in intimate, close, dialogue driven scenes he manages to place the camera in a position which makes you feel involved in the scene, almost as a third, invisible presence. He also conveys the brutality very well - bringing home the serious nature of the acts, and their extreme emotional punch, without glorifying or relishing the violence. The pacing is also extremely well thought out. When things start to naturally flag, a simple set piece manages to revive your interest - the perfect example of this being the moment when Andy hijacks the PA system. The look on the inmates' faces, the freezing of time, the only thing moving is the camera. It is filmmaking at its most empathetic.
Perhaps one of the reasons the film wasn't such a success in the cinema is that it is a film that truly needs to be digested by the viewer. It is not a film that gives out everything on first viewing, and like a good book it reveals more and more with each subsequent visit. Perhaps this is why the film was so successful in the home. There, the film can be given the respect it deserves, and the number of repeat viewings necessary to truly digest its message. It is not a non-stop action thrill fest, that is for sure, and it is deliberately slow at times. But that is part of the joy of the film. You truly feel involved with the characters, feeling every emotion that they do. And that is also why the “Hollywood” ending is so necessary in this particular film. Darabont is not afraid to do a dark ending - you only have to look at The Mist for one of the most nihilistic endings ever committed to celluloid. But it is clear why this film has the ending it does. You need that hope, and you need to see that hope is rewarded sometimes. It certainly is here, the characters are redeemed by the end of the film in many ways, and after the emotional rollercoaster you have been put through whilst watching it - you will really feel elated at the end. That, ladies and gentleman, is what this film does.
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