On its release in 1994, The Shawshank Redemption marked a return to old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment. A period-piece prison drama (recalling Bird Man of Alcatraz (1961) and Papillon (1973)), it was a film that treated its audience intelligently, concentrating on plot and character and allowing details to slowly accumulate before ending with an unashamedly uplifting finale.
In mid-1940 Maine, banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is convicted for the murder of his wife and her lover. He is sentenced to life at Shawshank prison, where he befriends affable lifer Red (Morgan Freeman). As a man ‘who knows how to get things’, Red provides Andy with a small rock hammer and a poster of Rita Hayworth, two items that will prove crucial in bringing about Andy’s ‘redemption’.
In this latest addition to the BFI’s ever-expanding series, renowned critic Mark Kermode provides a quasi-religious reading of the film, and while this rather prosaic approach rarely gels into a convincing whole, he provides a concise elucidation of how the film functions as crowd-pleaser. Kermode traces the history of the film from the pages of Stephen King’s novella ‘Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption’, through the production of the film at Ohio’s Mansfield Reformatory, to the video release which cemented the film’s cult status. Kermode is especially skillful on this last point, admitting in the first few lines that he did not initially ‘get’ the film, and was perplexed over its consecrated place in modern cinema’s pantheon. This point of view is further strengthened with his interviews with Robbins, Freeman and Darabont, none of whom ever seemed to have anticipated the film’s status as a critic’s darling and an audience crowd-pleaser.
Kermode’s account of the production, liberally interspersed with on-set trivia and interviews with director and lead actors lends the study a veneer of quality. However, there are limitations to this approach. By culling virtually all of his sources from the Channel Four documentary (Shawshank: The Redeeming Feature) from a few years ago, the study appears no more than a written re-hash of that documentary’s central tenets. Consequently, one never really gets inside the film, examining, say, the subtly schematic way it manipulates audience sympathies.
The analysis is also hampered by Kermode’s insistence on seeing everything in the film as a religious symbol for religion. He endlessly quotes Christian doctrine and Biblical passages and appears to side with those viewers who have interpreted Zihuatenejo ‘as a vision of heaven in which all sins of forgiven’, prison rapist Bogs as ‘a virtual Antichrist administering sadistic black mass to his sacrificial victim’, and the scene where Andy and his co-workers drink beer in the sun as a version of the Last Supper. This recourse may have served him well in his exhilarating BFI study on The Exorcist (1973), but here it seems both clichéd and a desperate attempt to ‘find’ a meaning. Far more revealing might have been an inquiry into how these scenes (and others) critique and defamiliarise the generic conventions of the ‘prison movie’.
The study is arguably more incisive when looking at the character of the Warden. As played by the suitably Machiavellian Bob Gunton, Kermode sees him as part Richard Nixon, part ‘Witchfinder General’. These insights are by far the more revealing, leaving one with the impression that a ‘political’ reading rather than a religious one may have served Kermode’s purpose better. Other strengths include Kermode’s typically fluid writing style, his brief section on the Brooks Hatlen character, and an extensive selection of colour stills that breathe life into the staider passages.
There are minor, yet fundamental, omissions. The reception of the film is well-handled, but an exploration of why this particular adaptation of a King source worked so successfully rather than the usual misfires that are associated with versions of his work would have been welcome. Many will disagree with Kermode’s reading of the final scene (it left him ‘frustrated and irritated’), for it is surely the coda the film requires, a summation of the Red-Andy relationship transplanted from prison walls to tropical beach.
On the whole then, one is left disappointed. Kermode may have investigated the underlying metaphysical nature of the film, and his account of the production is the most insightful and revealing yet in the BFI series. But behind his typically lucid prose, something seems missing. Perhaps it is the film itself – perhaps it is not a ‘Modern Classic’ but simply a highly accomplished crowd-pleaser inflected with textured performances and a literate screenplay. Perhaps the film cannot ultimately sustain a critical appraisal, leaving Kermode to admirably deconstruct certain key scenes without ever fashioning a coherent whole.