by Laurent Kelly
The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – Director and Adapted Screenplay: Frank Darabont Starring: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman , Bob Gunton OSCAR COUNT (0) – 7 nominations including Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Lead Actor (Freeman)
The Shawshank Redemption remains such a popular modern classic because it prevailed as that rare thing; an unashamed Hollywood sentimental picture which became genuinely moving despite its overwhelming and transparent themes of optimism. Perhaps it shouldn’t have worked, After all the film lacks the subtle ambiguity of Robert Bresson’s slow moving but astoundingly well crafted prison drama A Man Escaped. It has a stirring voiceover used to pull on the heartstrings on the audience and it shies away from showing the real nitty gritty of life behind bars. On paper it doesn’t sound like much and the title certainly doesn’t give much hope that it is going to be worthwhile.
But not all movies have to be complex to be rewarding nor subtle to be powerful and The Shawshank Redemption is a true example of simple but perfect storytelling.
What Shawshank accomplishes supremely well is building drama whilst also developing its themes and incoporating dramatic foreshadowing to help us both fear for and connect with the protagonist Andy Dufrane. The first evidence of these dramatic tools working together in unison appears during Andy’s first night in jail when a tearful new jailmate is convinced by his fellow inmates to commit suicide. Immediately this ugly sequence heightens our awareness of both the physical and psychological pressures of prison life as well as showing the potential road ahead for Andy unless he finds strategies to adadpt to his new surroundings. It is a clever scene because Andy doesn’t need to say anything for us to realise the hardships that are waiting for him. Instead the classic formula of circumstances eliciting change from characters is out into practice as Andy comes to terms with the fact that he is not going to be able to survive by himself.
Luckily he forms an unlikely friendship with lifer Red (Freeman) and it is this companisonship which ultimately saves both men. Andy relies on Red for comfort and wisdom and Red is reminded of the vitality of life through Andy’s youthful spirit and charm. This is a gradual process because Red, a somewhat hardened prisoner has given up hope of escape and has grudgingly accepted his fate. Andy will not accept his however and it his relentless brauvada which eventually manages to rub on those around him culminating in a tremendous sequence in which he locks himself inside the prison radio booth and plays Mozart on the loudpseakers much to the bewilderment of a hundred or so prisoners in the yard who merely stand in rapture, their sense not used to hearing something so pure and wonderful. As Red says himself:
“I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t wanna know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think that they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and it makes your heart ache because of it all. I tell you those voices soared, higher and father than anybody in a grey place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away, and for the briefest moment every last man in Shawshank felt free.”
I couldn’t explain it any better. Red helps Andy carve a life in prison but more importantly Andy shows Red that there is a purpose to life itself. Again its a simple formula but it speaks volumes through its unwavering emotional gravitas, always towing the line between stark realistic sadness and stirring optimism without ever slipping into melodrama.
The second crucial piece of dramatic foreshadowing occurs when the old librarian Brooks is granted release from prison. This should be an ecstatic moment but it develops tragically. To start with he has to part with his beloved bird who has become his closest companion during his stint in jail. When he releases the creature he may as well be throwing his soul out of the window too. We then see Brooks on the outside, struggling with packing bags in a supermarket due to his age and health. He can not adapt to this new fast moving world which feels so alien and he feels desperately alone, useless and helpless. In spite of the wrongdoings he caused in his youth, it is impossible not to feel for this old man who has endured a life sentence only to be met with the cruel realisation that he actually has nothing left to live for. Unable to shake this overriding feeling of emptiness and shame Brooks hangs himself just days after being freed. He had a life and an important role in prison but on the outside he is just a hopeless stranger in a foreign crowd. Few films have ever dealt with instituionalism quite so profoundly.
As well as being tragic in its own right Brooks death also warns us about what could be in store for Andy and Red if they too allow themselves to be institutionalized. In fact after Andy’s legendary escape it hits Red full on in the face when he ends up being released and taking up the same job as Brooks and living in the same crummy apartment. He too harbours thoughts of suicide and having witnessed this scene before we become genuinely horrified at the prospect of this beloved character taking the same escape route. But Red does of course have something to live for, he has Andy who has left instructions in a secret hiding place on whereabouts he can find him. The final scene then sees the two men about to reunite on a beach. In a great ending we are left to wonder about how their friendship may develop on the outside.
Like all great films Shawshank’s message is not just confined to its subject matter but rather explores the deep human need for optimism and courage in a world full of setbacks and cruelty. That it paints this picture so openly and succeeds without becoming a generic tearjerker is testament to the films greatness.