Charles Dodgson

Review of Shadowlands, 1993. Spelling Films International; Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger; Director: Richard Attenborough; Screenplay: William Nicholson (based on his stageplay)

This one flew under the radar when it was first released in 1993.

The plot can be summarized thus. A Jewish-American divorcee—Debra Winger as Joy Gresham—enters the life of an Oxford don—Anthony Hopkins as C. S. Lewis. Lewis wrote the iconic children’s fantasy Nania. He is shown as the brilliant literary analyst in the role of teacher as well as in social exchanges with colleagues—all middle aged or older Anglo-Saxon males.

Gresham sees through the famous professor’s intellectual mastery to perceive a vulnerable, repressed man. She first matches him intellectually then subjects his emotional life to cutting critique. Lewis first resists this criticism but is drawn to the American’s honesty and intelligence. His resistance crumbles and before long he is breaking out of his cold persona.

The lessons all flow in one direction, from the Bronx to England. Lewis changes his ways, becomes more honest, more humble, more human. Gresham remains unchanged, as oracles do. What needs changing?

The two protagonists’ bond despite pronounced differences. Lewis was deeply religious and belonged to a Christian milieu. Oxford had all the trappings of a Christian institution. The film opens to the angelic harmonies of a hymn sung by the Magdalen College boys’ choir. Dinner is opened with a Latin grace. Lewis was also an anti-communist. He had conservative social views. In 1934 he famously remarked that “Any large number of free-thinking Jews” is incompatible with the flourishing of a Christian tradition. Gresham was a self-declared atheist who announces early in the film that in the 1930s one was either a fascist or a communist. But arguments never develop over these differences, despite her knowing Lewis’s writings by heart. She never ridicules Christianity by word or gesture. Her only differences with Lewis concern his alleged emotional dishonesty.

The story has two climaxes. In the first Gresham delivers a devastating or perhaps merely a vicious critique, seemingly out of the blue. Lewis has married her to circumvent British visa regulations and allow her to remain in London. The marriage remains unconsummated. The relationship is ostensibly one of friendship. Lewis invites Gresham to a social function at his Oxford college, Magdalen, and the two retire to his rooms for tea. As Lewis puts on the kettle, Gresham begins to work herself up to critical pitch:

Gresham: “So what do you do here? Think great thoughts?”

Lewis: “Teach, mainly.”

Gresham: “What do they do, sit at your feat and gaze up at you in awe?

Lewis: “No, not at all.”

Gresham: “I bet they do.”

Lewis: “We have fine old battles here, I can tell you that.”

Gresham: “Which you win. It must be quite a boost for you being older and wiser than all of them. Not to mention your readers [colleagues].”

Lewis: “What?” [from the next room.]

Gresham: “Your readers; that gang of friends of yours. All very well trained not to play out of bounds.”

Lewis: “What are you talking about?”

Gresham: “Of course this morning, not much competition there!”

Lewis: “That’s nonsense. What about Christopher Riley. He never lets me get away with anything. You know that.”

Gresham: “Except doubt, and fear, and pain, and terror.”

Lewis: “Where did all that come from?”

Gresham: “I’ve only now just seen it. How you’ve arranged a life for yourself where no-one can touch you. Everyone that’s close to you is either younger than you, or weaker than you, or under your control.”

Lewis: “Why are you getting at me. I thought we were friends.”

Gresham: “I don’t know that we are friends. Not the way you have friends anyway. Sorry Jack.”

Lewis: “I don’t understand.”

Gresham: “Oh, I think you do. You just don’t like it. Nor do I.” She exits.

As Lewis says, Gresham is getting at him in a decidedly unfriendly manner. But he comes to agree with her, in practice if not in abstract. Surrender is eased by the crisis of her fatal illness and Lewis’s realization of how precious she has become. He loves her honesty.

In the second climax, Lewis finally completes his treatment by sobbing uncontrollably with grief following Gresham’s death. Gone is his reserve. Gone is his stoicism. He is delivered from Englishness.

This is an allegory of ethnic contest and dominance that plays on stereotypes. How different the plot would be if written to reaffirm European confidence in its traditions and culture. The visitor would have striven to conform to high-culture Englishness with its politeness and restraint. She would soon learn that in Britain overt verbal aggression is considered transparent one-upmanship—simply not cricket. She would be offered the example of one or two Anglo-Jewish dons who are assimilated to English ways. She would be taught that true friendship does not admit the relentless subversion of others’ self-confidence; and that tolerance is a form of civility which entails reciprocating others’ suspension of tribalism. And she would quickly learn to judge Bolshevism from the perspective of its victims as well as its beneficiaries.

Such a plot would also be flawed by simplistic ethnic stereotypes, though with Britain on top—a sort of ethnic missionary position that I suppose is also out of date. A balanced story would have shown some give and take. An outgoing, intelligent, and unpretentious lady from the Bronx blows some fresh air into stuffy Oxford and brings companionship to a lonely bachelor. In return she comes to perceive her own aggression and ethnocentrism and learns some social graces.

Charles Dodgson is the pen name of a social analyst living in England.