Richard Attenborough's Shadowlands, a well-mannered tearjerker set at well-mannered Oxford in 1952, aspires to romantic tragedy and to the kind of Merchant/Ivory polish that keeps art house audiences murmuring. But the faultless Hopkins must save it from folly.
If you were privileged to see him as the repressed English butler of The Remains of the Day, you will find some spooky similarities here. But Hopkins is far too accomplished an actor to repeat himself. As C.S. Lewis, the Christian scholar, professor and author of children's fables (The Narnia Chronicles), this acting master gives us another portrait of an emotional sleepwalker awakened late in life by the love of a woman. Departure: The well-armored protagonist here is enlivened by dry wit, intellectual fervor and, eventually, true feeling. "Jack" Lewis may have holed up for 25 years in an Oxford cottage with only his books and his boozy brother Warnie (the splendid Edward Hardwicke) for company, but in the end he's not immune to the real-life wonders of pain and love.
William Nicholson's wry, literate screenplay hardly fluffs a line, and the collection of tweedy snobs, fashion-plate atheists and Freudian posers (John Wood stands out as the sniffy Christopher Riley) surrounding Lewis at cozy, clammy Oxford could hardly be more vivid. But Attenborough remains a full-throttle romantic, and the parties who cast the otherwise admirable Debra Winger as Lewis's brash lady love would do well to lie down and sleep it off.
As the self-proclaimed "Jewish-communist-Christian-American" Joy Gresham, who's also a poet of sorts, Winger convinces us with neither her ill-studied Brooklyn/Queens bray nor her intermittent outbreaks of pioneer feminism. When, after a peculiar courtship made of uncertain bobs and feints, this dramatic intruder is revealed to have terminal cancer, it's difficult to summon up the, uh, appropriate emotion. Besides, Deb already did death in Terms of Endearment.
As for Mrs. Gresham's fatally cute and predictably troubled young son, Douglas, let's hope Joseph Mazzello's sixth-grade teacher is keeping his little chair warm.
Ah, but the magisterial Mr. Hopkins. Amid a two-hour, two-hanky manipulation done in by a heroine who's clearly blundered in from an adjoining soundstage, Hopkins's subtle, detailed, soul-of-the-craft effort is pure pleasure to watch. No one better anywhere.