I can remember not being particularly taken with this film at my first viewing and have barely thought about it over the years, However a chance second viewing has left me rather more reflective about its merits. Directed by Richard Attenborough from the play by William Nicholson, I originally found it a little humourless, rather wordy, and definitely 'worthy'. While I was aware of the basic story of the autumnal romance between the Oxford don C.S. Lewis and the American divorced poet Joy Gresham, I do not recall being reduced to tears. That was then; this is now!
Debra Winger plays Gresham and was Oscar-nominated for her role as the brash woman who manages to locate the heart of a confirmed bachelor and who then inconveniently dies, leaving him to question his faith. (She certainly had the form for this part from her earlier role of a woman who dies young in "Terms of Endearment".) Winger did not win, but it is a pity that Anthony Hopkins was not also nominated for his turn as Lewis, since he has never been better or more moving, not even in "The Remains of the Day", where he played a similarly repressed character. Set in Oxford in the 1950s, Lewis has a comfortable niche with his fellow academics at his Oxford college, enjoying a pint of beer, and joshing about this and that. How, they tease him, can he be the author of successful children's books when he knows nothing about children and how they think. He replies that his brother was once a child, as was he. He shares a home with this bachelor brother, Warnie, touchingly played by Edward Hardwicke, and theirs is a regular and routine existence.
Into this set world arrives an American fan who has been corresponding with the author. Originally when they meet for tea in London, Lewis brings his brother along, not as a chaperone, but for moral support. He is ill prepared to communicate with such an open and and uninhibited woman, but is strangely fascinated as well. He invites her to visit him in Oxford and she asks if she can bring her young son Douglas along as he is a massive Narnia fan. The son is played by Joseph Mazzello who had some major roles in the early 90s. I have always remembered him in the now forgotten "Radio Flyer" (1992), where his childhood heartbreak and aspirations really said something to me. (I was therefore unprepared to realise that he is now a man and to see him most recently in "The Social Network".) Anyhow the young Mazzello is equally memorable here. He asks to see Lewis' attic and is immediately drawn to the wardrobe in a far corner. As he rummages through the musty old coats, you can sense his deep disappointment that they did not somehow lead to the entrance to a magical land.
When Gresham returns to England after her divorce their friendship begins to deepen and she has no qualms asking him to marry her to afford her the opportunity to remain in Britain. Theirs is a civil ceremony and it is strictly a marriage of convenience with Lewis back in Oxford and she and Douglas in their London basement flat. Then she falls ill with inoperable cancer and all bets are off. Lewis, who lectures to hat-wearing matrons, giving comforting talks about man's place in God's plans, and who teaches his students that the most intense joy is not in the having but in the desire -- as pain is God's way of perfecting us, must leave his own 'shadowland' -- the landscape that man inhabits before finding the light. A woman called Joy Gresham really teaches him what 'joy' means. They have a religious marriage ceremony in her hospital room and, during a brief remission, a delayed honeymoon. However this happiness is short-lived and she soon dies. The penultimate scene of Lewis and young Douglas falling into each others arms with uncontrolled tears in front of the fabled wardrobe is too moving for words. I must have had a heart of stone the first time around.
I understand that the author first told his story as a television drama with Claire Bloom and Joss Ackland in the leads. I have not seen this, but somehow I think I might have liked Bloom more than Winger; there was just something about her performance that seemed a little cold and calculating and, dare I say, unlovable. However while Ackland is also a fine actor, I doubt he could have given the complex Lewis character the same intellectual depth and genuine anguish that Hopkins brought to the table.
Guess what Folks? It's FrightFest yet again so that's me out of general circulation for the next five days. All things being equal, a more or less full report will follow....eventually!