Reviewers in the major British newspapers raved about Shadowlands, a portrayal of the last years of C. S. Lewis’s life, during which he befriended, fell in love with, and married a dying Joy Davidman Gresham. This coproduction of BBC-TV, the Episcopal Radio-TV Foundation, and Gateway films recently received “best single television drama” and “best televison actress” awards from the British Academy of Film and Television (roughly equivalent to the American groups that hand out Oscars and Emmys). American admirers of Lewis will certainly want to see this film (available in 16mm from Gateway Films), despite some flaws that the British press appears to have overlooked.
The film is technically very good. The acting is excellent, with Joss Acklin as Jack (Lewis’s nickname) and Claire Bloom as Joy. Each delivers a strong, but subtle performance, taking care not to exploit the sentimentalism of the great-man-marries-dying-woman story, as this would have been untrue to the Lewis-Davidman relationship. Together, Acklin and Bloom suggest something of the power and pathos § in this fascinating couple’s love. The well-chosen settings are especially helpful in giving an American audience a sense of Lewis’s England.
However, this is not a documentary, but a drama; and though it is based on history, it does not always remain true to history. The usual liberties are taken with chronology and facts: Lewis makes radio broadcasts during the fifties that were actually made during World War II, and Joy’s son, Douglas, is said to be 8 when his mother dies, when in actuality he was 14. The altered names of most of the secondary characters is particularly distracting since the viewer familiar with Lewis’s life constantly has to be guessing whether or not these characters are supposed to be the real people.
Most of us have learned not to trust such productions as sources of facts. But even if the film attempts to be true to the spirit if not the letter of Lewis’s life, it is flawed by resting too heavily on Lewis’s book A Grief Observed. In an unpublished letter, Lewis described this book, written in the wake of Joy’s death, as “ ‘A Grief Observed’ from day to day in all its rawness and sinful reactions and follies. It ends with faith but raises all the blackest doubts en route.”
Shadowlands reflects the book’s structure by focusing on the most difficult period of Lewis’s life without providing a context for his struggle. Though Shadowlands opens with some brief scenes intended to establish that Lewis is a noted Christian author, the nature of his faith is not made clear; one gets the image of an intense, somber academic whose Christianity is a function of his intellect. When he begins to interact with Joy and has to deal with his emotions, his religion merely gets in his way. Throughout the film, for example, Lewis’s relationship to his priest is adversarial rather than supportive. Finally, after Joy’s death, the faith that is depicted is not strong because hard won (as in A Grief Observed), but shaky because its foundation was never established. In fact, the film ends with Jack and Douglas just beginning to deal with their grief and only hints that they will do so successfully.
To a certain extent, this film is a reaction to many people’s tendency to venerate Lewis. Whatever its motives, it emphasizes the emotional side of this remarkable man and shies away from the spiritual. Unfortunately, and ironically, in attempting to humanize Lewis, Shadowlands actually distorts him.
Let us not deny that Lewis was human: he loved and suffered; he got angry and wrestled with God. But by all accounts, he was a deeply spiritual man who, even in his darkest moments, continued to worship God and proclaim the gospel. It is this balance that still attracts people to his work—and it is this balance that Shadowlands does not portray.
If its problems are kept in mind, viewing Shadowlands can be enjoyable. It should generate valuable discussion on the nature of Lewis’s marriage and A Grief Observed, as well as spark further interest in both the man and his work.
“The film you are about to see was panned by two of the world’s biggest film critics,” the chairman of the theater’s board of directors told us. “Roger Ebert and the Pope.”
There wasn’t an empty seat in the Facets Multimedia screening room for the Chicago opening of Jean-Luc Godard’s controversial Hail Mary (CT, Nov. 22, 1985, p. 54). “We haven’t had such a large crowd since our annual erotic film festival,” quipped the chairman. An impressive turnout for an art film.
But the crowd outside the theater was almost as impressive. By the time the film began rolling, nearly 100 protesters were tracing an oval in the Fullerton Avenue asphalt outside the theater. The mixture of Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Lutherans smiled and waved their signs for the local news minicams. They recited the rosary and sang hymns of devotion to the Mother of God. “God’s Mother Wanted Her Child,” said one sign in English. “Blasphemy Against the God-Bearer Is a Great Sin,” said another in Greek.
Godard’s twentieth-century update of the story of Jesus’ conception and birth does not violate the canons of orthodoxy. He retains the virgin birth (scientifically confirmed after a pelvic exam by Mary’s gynecologist). He retains the annunciation by an angelic visitor (who takes an airplane and a taxi to get to the gas station where Mary works). He even retains a young Jesus who resists Joseph’s authority, announcing as he runs into the woods that he must be about his Father’s business.
“The film’s nudity is about as erotic as a LaMaze childbirth training film,” said Nicole Dreiske, the theater’s codirector. And while Mary’s nudity is not quite that neutral, it definitely is not designed to appeal to anyone’s prurient interests.
Body and soul
The film seems to be an excuse for Godard to have his characters speculatè about the influences souls have on bodies, and vice versa. For those not au courant with contemporary French philosophy, reading this film’s esoteric subtitles is like walking midway into a conversation and neither comprehending nor caring what’s being said. There might be some theological problem here. But 99 percent of the faithful could see the film without knowing what was said, much less being poisoned by the message.
So why the protest? The answer is in their signs. “God’s Mother Is My Mother,” said several. “Our Mother Doesn’t Deserve This. We Want It to Stop Now,” said another.
Of course we wouldn’t want a French filmmaker’s camera to capture our own mothers in the nude, having pelvic exams, wondering whether they really wanted to bear us. This film displays and even celebrates things we might intellectually acknowledge about our mothers, but which few of us would want to discuss with them. These protesters feel the same way about their beloved Mary.
Our cautious respect for our own mothers is precisely the feeling that energizes the protests against Hail Mary. And while most Protestants can never share Catholic rage about this film, at least our filial loyalties can help us to begin to understand.
By David Neff.
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