Saturday 8 February 2014

Movie Review: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

A monumental celebration of resiliency, The Shawshank Redemption explores eternal themes of hope and friendship through the story of a banker convicted of murder adjusting to a brutal new life behind bars.

It's 1947 in New England, and young bank vice president Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is convicted of murdering his wife and her lover. He is sent to the sprawling Shawshank State Penitentiary to serve two consecutive life sentences. The prison is run by warden Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton), who believes in discipline and the Bible, and ruthless chief guard Byron Hadley (Clancy Brown). Andy initially sticks to himself and has to fend off the unwanted advances of a group of pathologically violent rapists. He then befriends resourceful long-timer Ellis Boyd "Red" Redding (Morgan Freeman), a leader among the prisoners and legendary for being able to secure any item from outside the prison walls - for a standard 20 percent mark-up.

Andy finally establishes his reputation by helping Hadley save on his taxes. Norton then appoints Andy as his personal banker and chief tax-evader. Over the years, Andy uses his elevated position within the prison community to dramatically enhance the prison library, and helps several convicts to finish their high school education. But a shocking confession from a prisoner in another facility sets Andy on a collision course with Norton. 19 years into his sentence, Andy's determination to hang onto hope faces its ultimate challenge.

A generally faithful adaptation of a Stephen King novella, The Shawshank Redemption is a dazzling achievement. Director and screenwriter Frank Darabont constructs a deeply moving essay on the adaptability of the human spirit, and the conflict between hope and despair when the future appears uniformly grim.

Red: What are you talkin' about?
Andy: Hope.
Red: Hope? Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. It's got no use on the inside. You'd better get used to that idea.

Despite a running length of 142 minutes, The Shawshank Redemption never flags. Darabont sets a deliberate pace, Shawshank coming alive as a world onto itself, operating in its own version of normal and according to its rules of conduct. With the rich narrative, the old prison even becomes homey, the film succeeding in transforming the imposing walls and claustrophobic cells into a comfort zone where men's dreams struggle to stay alive against the demons of surrender.

Red: These prison walls are funny. First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. Enough time passes, gets so you depend on them. That's institutionalized. They send you here for life, that's exactly what they take. The part that counts anyways.

A sub-plot about Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore, in a touching performance), an old convict and the Shawshank prison librarian, is the spiritual hinge of the film. Brooks is released after serving a 50 year sentence and is unable to cope with life outside the prison walls. Worse, Brooks knew before his release that he would be lost in a world now completely foreign to him.

Andy and Red potentially face the same fate. Red applies for parole at regular intervals, and is mechanically turned down. With the passing decades, his fear of getting out starts to become real, and he is content to lose his motivation. Andy insists that hope for a better future can never be lost, and in his quiet way works methodically to try and save both himself and his friend. The film ends with a rousing final 30 minutes, Andy's hope blossoming and embracing Red in an act of gallant salvation.

Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman deliver two outstanding performances. Breaking the familiar pattern of friends with opposite dispositions, both Andy and Red are understated, saying more with stance and expressions than words and emotion, and maintaining an inner dignity in the face of adversity. Robbins has never been better, his eyes burning with the intensity of a man facing a mammoth wrong and gradually realizing that resolution will be years in the making. Freeman brings to Red his quiet but strong persona, the actor adding beautiful shadings to Red's attitude as the passing years rub off the edges and replace them with resignation.

Andy: I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy livin' or get busy dyin'.

The Shawshank Redemption is a deeply rewarding triumph, a movie with that rare insight into what makes the human spirit such a buoyant beast.

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