What began as a Stephen King short story outside of his usual horror genre, completely passed over at the box-office and by the Academy, “The Shawshank Redemption” is one of film history’s most improbable success stories. Eventually finding audiences on the home-video market, the film has since continually climbed up the ranks on the lists of both viewers and critics and, sitting on top of IMDb’s top 250, it continues to enthral and inspire the world over. Yet despite its almost supernatural and untouchable status Frank Darabont’s picture remains a very humble masterpiece, proving like “Titanic” did again three years later, that interest in old-fashioned stories will never wane.
Given two life-sentences for the murder of his wife and her lover, banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) arrives at Shawshank state prison in 1947. Over the space of twenty years he befriends Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding, one of the prison’s “getters” who for a small price can smuggle anything, including a rock-hammer and even Rita Hayworth in through the bars. Life on the inside isn’t always kind to Andy who attracts both assault from a prison gang and the attention of cruel guard Hadley (Clancy Brown) and the warden Norton (Bob Gunton). The latter use his financial skills as the accounting end of money laundering deals that would see them becoming millionaires. The arrival of young convict Tommy Williams (Gil Bellows) with proof of Andy’s possible innocence complicates events further, driving Andy towards the edge. The watershed we always expect yet it sleeps below the movie’s surface and still manages to surprise us when it bursts onto the scene. Far more than a classic prison movie however, the eventual redemption makes Shawshank a touching statement about dreams, hope, freedom and humanity. Its genius in this regard rests largely with Darabont’s masterful screenplay and superior directorial style, creating expansive brush strokes of plot and character development that only few others have matched.
In Morgan Freeman Darabont has found the film’s perfect anchor-point. Providing the calming and witty narration, the part of Red has proven the main source of the actor’s godlike standing that continues to the present day. Tim Robbins in the main role meanwhile is quietly brilliant, Andy remains to the last mysterious yet incredibly likeable as he unites the prison inmates with beers on the roof, expands the prison library and, in one of cinema’s most memorable and moving musical scenes plays Mozart through the speaker system, leaving every condemned man speechless in wonder and flashing light into even the darkest corners. They are roles that have defined the careers of both actors. Every other aspect of “The Shawshank Redemption’s” production are equally noteworthy, from the period-correct production and costume design to the wonderful cinematography by Roger Deakins (who regularly works with the Coen brothers) and the no less impressive supporting cast including the great James Whitmore as the ageing Brooks, and William Sadler as Heywood. The film’s extended denouement could well be accused of being overly sentimental, however to Darabont’s credit he leaves (literally) no stone unturned when setting out to tell the tale of endurance and hope to the very end. Thus the sense of fulfilment and satisfaction in a true ending is all the greater for the audience who have patiently waited for it.
Composer Thomas Newman who was enjoying a high time in his career throughout the early 90s, approaches the scoring of “The Shawshank Redemption” like most of his other scores. That is with extended piano meandering and string plucking that bores many listeners. The difference between Shawshank and his later scores for “The Green Mile” and others is Newman’s writing of a gorgeously haunting and beautiful main theme that encompasses the spirit of the tale perfectly. Heard in “Stoic Theme,” and “Suds on the Roof” the theme is based on sweeping strings and the signature piano. The penultimate cue “So was Red” sums up the idea with an oboe performance and leading into “End Title” that mirrors a sense of accomplishment. And then of course there’s the Mozart: The duet from “The Marriage of Figaro” performed by members of the Berlin State Opera is rightly placed on the album as it is in the film. Similarly, several period songs including Hank Williams strewn across the album do not detract from the listening experience but complete the period setting musically. The score is Newman’s crowning achievement of that period and earned the composer his first Oscar nomination, an award he has yet to win.
Perhaps it was unfortunate that it was released almost concurrently with both “Pulp Fiction” and “Forrest Gump” in 1994, two films that captured audience imagination and the prison epic was ignored, but “The Shawshank Redemption” is one of the few films that has the power to move viewers to tears no matter how many times they have watched it. Its place near or even at the very top of great films is well deserved and is unlikely to have its position challenged. Even for film illiterates, this is not something you can afford to miss. If six stars could be given, that’s what it would get.
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