The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption

****

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

American mainsteam movies are not renowned for their risk-taking attributes. Studios salivate at the suggestion of stereotypical storylines, surfing the slipstream of other people's innovation, allowing braver men to make the first move.

The courage of writer/director Frank Darabont deserves respect, although without Schindler's List and Rob Reiner, The Shawshank Redemption might never have seen the light of an arc lamp. He penned an excellent screenplay, based on a short story by Stephen King, from a collection that included The Body, later turned into an internationally successful film by Reiner, called Stand By Me.

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Shawshank is not a Nazi PoW camp shocker, although there are similarities. In 1946, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a respectable young banker from Maine, is convicted of killing his wife and her lover. He is sent to the state's notorious maximum security penitentiary for the rest of his life.

The regime inside is as sadistic as anything Himmler might have conceived. The warden (Bob Gunton) tells new arrivals, "I believe in two things, discipline and The Bible." In fact, he believes that if a prisoner is of no use to him, he is of no use, and encourages brutal repression, especially by the head screw, who shares Ralph Fiennes's attitude towards the cathartic nature of violence.

Dufresne becomes the warden's business manager - a role similiar to Ben Kingsley's in Schindler's List - laundering bribes through a number of phantom bank accounts. "On the outside, I was straight as an arrow," he tells his friend Red (Morgan Freeman). "I had to come to prison to become a crook."

At the same time, he is lobbying politicians by letter for help in building the best prison library in the country. At least, Schindler's relationship with Fiennes's commandant had a certain give and take. The warden is a much harder man. His need for Dufresne's expertise is essential - he kills to retain it - and yet offers few privileges in return.

The story is recounted by Red, the jailhouse Mr Fixit. If Freeman wasn't such an intelligent actor, this long term lifer might have been little more than a narrative device, the peg upon which to hang the tale. For the first two hours, survival, friendship-as-adhesive and the little things that make a man feel human are the crux of the drama. Only at the end, after an unexpected twist, does the mood and pace change.

The film is too long, not entirely credible and, despite scenes of unwarranted viciousness, prone to sentimentality. Darabont does a superb job, nevertheless, in not compromising his ideals, insisting on the space to set up the denouement, giving his cast pithy things to say and extracting performances of exceptional quality from Freeman, Robbins, Gunton and James Whitmore, as the oldest lag in the joint.

Reviewed on: 30 Sep 2004
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The anguish of a young banker, incarcerated for life in a notoriously repressive high security jail.
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David Haviland *****

Director: Frank Darabont

Writer: Frank Darabont, based on the short story Rita Hayworth And The Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King

Starring: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, William Sadler, Clancy Brown, Gil Bellows, Mark Rolston, James Whitmore

Year: 1994

Runtime: 142 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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