The exceptionally thoughtful Shadowlands is not just a romantic drama but a story of abiding love. That is what resonates most deeply in screenwriter William Nicholson’s adaptation of his own 1989 play (which, curiously, was itself a stage production of what Nicholson had previously written for a television movie in 1985), a biographical account of the romance between British author C.S. Lewis and American poet Joy Gresham. That is a crucial underselling of what the movie really was underneath the surface of such a description, however. Thanks to Nicholson and director Richard Attenborough, this wasn’t as it might appear to be: stuffy, detached, medicinal in the extreme.

Looking at its outward façade, one might anticipate such feelings being aroused from it. Much of Attenborough’s direction involves wide angles of 18th-century architecture and of people driving or riding in the cars of the mid-1950s and of stately old men reading, both to themselves and aloud, from classical literature and poetry. This does, after all, partly follow Lewis – at this point, famed for his Chronicles of Narnia series and an academic teaching at Magdalen College, a constituent campus of the University of Oxford – and one of his legendary reading groups, which in real life partly involved another author famed for his world out of fantastical literature (though not, regrettably, included in this movie).

Lewis, called “Jack” by his loved ones, is played in the film by Anthony Hopkins, in perhaps the only bit of casting that could have remotely made sense for this figure. As the film begins, Jack’s concerns are almost exclusively academic. He teaches a group of students – one of whom, Whistler (James Frain), is the source of a lot of grief and stubbornness – and performs lectures on the many seeming contradictions of a loving creator. An early one we see is something of an omen for what is to come: If a supposedly loving creator allows suffering into our lives, is that really loving? Jack’s argument, which he believes to be supported by scriptures, is tested by the rest of the movie.

Upon an unusual request by letter, Jack meets Joy Gresham, the American poet (more commonly known by the surname “Davidman”) played by Debra Winger. She has arrived under the pretense of wanting her son Douglas (Joseph Mazzello) to meet the author of his favorite books. One can tell immediately – by how Joy challenges Jack’s preconception of her intelligence right from the start – that Joy has ulterior motives. It seems she has been drawn to a man she feels she knows quite well, simply based on his writings. Indeed, she very well may. As played by Winger and written by Nicholson, Joy is almost preternaturally observant of the human condition and not at all shy about vocalizing those observations.

The dialogues between Jack and Joy are utterly thrilling, especially for those who enjoy the slightly elevated talk of intelligent people within the context of a play-like structure. Those talks go on and on, never tiresome or circular, always examining and going deeper to reveal truths and relay wisdom. They are both lapsed atheists – Jack was brought up in a faithless household, Joy joined the American Communist Party when given the choice between that and fascism. They have both witnessed and suffered pain. For Jack, it was the death of mother at a tender age. For Joy, it’s her current marriage to an abusive alcoholic (the unspoken William Lindsay Gresham, of Nightmare Alley).

With the knowledge that she has escaped her husband, a kind of barrier between them dissolves, and a mutual respect develops. Nevertheless, in order to face her demons, Joy and Douglas return to America. Jack, meanwhile, returns to what he now sees as drudgery – his speeches, his students, his reading group. He begins to miss Joy, who left before his least favorite time of year, much to the bemusement of his brother Warnie (Edward Hardwicke) and the chagrin of his disbelieving group fellows (who are played by the likes of Julian Fellowes, John Wood and Michael Denison). When she returns, after suing her husband for divorce, his ecstasy quickly turns to a solution to keep her close: The two should marry.

The performances from Hopkins and Winger are utterly revelatory, even for these two fine actors. By playing the rich, often demanding dialogue with complete naturalism, they disappear entirely into these characters. Hopkins keeps everything about his performance so particular and reserved that the moments, late in the film, where he must lose his nerve are all the more devastating. That is because, ultimately, Joy discovers she has a form of cancer (later discovered to be metastatic carcinoma involving the bones) that has nearly eaten away her left femur. It isn’t exactly a spoiler to reveal that, yes, she succumbs to the illness, as we know that about Gresham’s real fate.

Winger is stunning as a woman whose pragmatism carries over into her imminent death. A key scene, shared between the two in a spot dear to Jack, has Joy setting the stage for her absence (the way she turns a saying of Jack’s, involving the role pain plays in happiness, on its ear is both wise and devastating), and later, Jack admits that his theory about God’s use of suffering might be both faulty and reckless. That’s what Shadowlands, one of the great films about questioning faith (as well as one of the finest biographical portraits in the movies, whatever degree of fictionalization or embellishment it might have), is all about: not offering empty hagiography of a well-known author but challenging his world view.

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