Release Date: 14 October, 1994
Director: Frank Darabont
Notable Cast: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman
Personal rating: 10/10
I remember trying to watch Shawshank Redemption in college several times and failing to finish it. At that time, my cinematic experiences and knowledge were limited to Hindi,Telugu movies and the typical Hollywood blockbuster movie like a Titanic. I found Shawshank slow, boring and very verbose. I remember reading about it on the internet and was amazed at the unanimous acclaim and respect it had garnered over the years. That was probably the major reason why I persevered with my repeated viewings of the movie at regular intervals, hoping that one day I would get to the end credits and realize what the fuss was all about.
Luckily, movies were an integral part of my college curriculum, or rather I made them one. So as I watched more and more English language movies, the more comfortable I became with the themes, techniques, accents and acting. So, I eventually saw Shawshank and it turned out to be an amazing cinematic experience. It is by far my most favorite film. Movies at the end of the day are about telling stories and Shawshank does a bloody fine job of it.
The movie begins with a trial where a man is found guilty of murdering his wife and her boyfriend. The man , named Andy Dufresne maintains his innocence during the trial but is sentenced to two life terms in prison. The story now shifts to the Shawshank Prison or correctional facility which is run by a self proclaimed disciplinarian and Christian warden who goes by the name of Norton. Andy initially keeps to himself, is tortured by a gang of inmates who are called the ‘Girls’ and slowly strikes a friendship with another fellow inmate Red who manages to provide him with posters of Hollywood’s ever changing pin up girls. The movie offers an insight into prison life, the monotony of it all, the regrets some of the prisoners feel, the hardships, their attitudes towards each other and towards life in general. Although all of them maintain they are ‘innocent’ in what becomes a running joke throughout the movie, you actually do not care. They seem like normal human beings who have been thrust into a situation where there is no such thing as free will. Andy who is an educated banker slowly begins to gain the trust of the guards and the warden and is assigned to do more intelligent and less physically challenging jobs around the prison. In this process not only does he manage to bring about changes in the prison but also in a few prisoners. Yet, it is very difficult to read Andy’s face or thoughts just as it is evident to read Red’s. Red, also serving a life term faces parole rejections repeatedly and although he handles it with his trademark humor and nonchalance, his longing for freedom is very evident.
When a new prisoner enters Shawshank and becomes a part of Andy’s and Red’s group, Andy starts teaching him to help him get his High School degree. In this process, a revelation is made that shatters the entire dynamic of the movie. By this time so much has happened and so much time has passed that the relevance of the disclosure and its impact on Andy took me by surprise. I just assumed, he gave up or got used to the idea of staying in a prison. But, contrary to Red who considers hope a ‘dangerous thing’, Andy believes in it ever so strongly. He is baffled and angered by the lack of support and humanity he receives from the warden for whom he has done a great deal of work – both legal and illegal. This is where, the movie picks up its pace and there is a sense of urgency about the proceedings. You know something big is going to happen but you just cannot predict what or how. Without giving anything away, all I can say is that the last 30 minutes of the movie are delightfully entertaining and surprisingly profound at the same time. You feel the happiness, sadness, sense of relief,sense of victory and the freedom of the characters.
Tim Robbins plays Andy, theoretically the protagonist of the movie. Although Andy is a shy, quiet character, I never quite liked Tim Robbins’ portrayal of him. I never felt his pain nor anguish. On the other hand Red, played by Morgan Freeman is a character you feel for and root for. The credit for that has to go to Morgan Freeman, who has a gifted voice and a subtlety and dignity about him. His acting is effortlessly natural and his emotions very real. The rest of the cast consists of no big names but they fit their characters perfectly and act well. The first time I saw the movie completely, I was just blown away by the sheer ambition and scale of the story. The second time I noticed smaller things, like the background music, the metaphors, the settings, the lights, the camera angles, everything. All of it adds up to make this movie as close to cinematic perfection as possible.
The movie was nominated for 7 Academy awards, but unfortunately did not win any. I am certain though that none of the other movies released in 1994 or even after that have the recall value that this movie has. This movie is timeless, its theme is neither culturally bound nor era-bound. Very few movies have this quality. Shawshank does not hurry. Neither does it force your attention by gimmicks or unnecessary drama. It is to the director, Frank Darabont’s credit that he tells the story with honesty and stays true to its essence. I think the following words by the great movie critic Roger Ebert sum up what I feel about the movie.
“Polls and rentals reflect popularity but don’t explain why people value “Shawshank” so fervently. Maybe it plays more like a spiritual experience than a movie. It does have entertaining payoff moments (as when the guards from another prison, wearing their baseball uniforms, line up to have Andy do their taxes). But much of the movie involves quiet, solitude, and philosophical discussions about life. The moments of violence (as when Andy is sexually assaulted) are seen objectively, not exploited.
The movie avoids lingering on Andy’s suffering; after beatings, he’s seen in medium and long shot, tactfully. The camera doesn’t focus on Andy’s wounds or bruises, but, like his fellow prisoners, gives him his space.”
PS: You can read Roger Ebert’s original movie review here : Roger Ebert’s Review of ‘Shawshank Redemption’