It arrived to no great hoohah, overshadowed in cinemas by the facile Forrest Gump and the potty-mouthed Pulp Fiction. Yet it stands the 10-years-on test. Like its hero Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), dismissed upon entering prison as "a tall drink of water with a silver spoon up his ass", The Shawshank Redemption has inner steel. Rising from the flames of its box-office bombing, this phoenix was resurrected on video, viewers warming to a character-driven drama that appeared to have dropped in from another time. Everyone felt they'd discovered it. And then told their friends.
Frank Darabont's directorial debut is so richly written, so gently performed, that it's only on, say, the sixth viewing that you may pause to ponder its rather far-fetched conclusion. Because the writer/helmer has sold the situation so successfully, he can coast on our love for the characters - a love that carries us through both implausibility and the sentimental beachside reunion, tacked on at the studio's suggestion. "Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane," says prison sage Red (Morgan Freeman). But this film is all about hope - for a better life, a better world and for a redemption that can only be forged in the white heat of suffering and degradation.
While Robbins gives perhaps his best screen performance, it's Freeman who sets the tone, his voiceover enveloping us in prison life. That Tom Hanks' Gump nabbed the Oscar over Morgan's soulful con remains one of the Academy's greatest crimes. Perhaps the problem is that Freeman isn't obviously acting. There are no look-at-me quirks here, just the palpable emotions of a regretful human being. His crime, if you could call it one, is that he makes it look so easy.
The supporting cast excel too, particularly Bob Gunton's tightly wound warden and James Whitmore's aged birdman. The performances shine because Darabont isn't afraid to be still: to show people talking or - as in the tear-inducing Mozart scene - linger on the simple sight of upturned faces. Roger Deakins' photography, meanwhile, is beguiling, his camera gliding through a jailhouse swathed in eternal autumn.
Shawshank is about hope but it's also about faith and friendship. Andy is a figure of inspiration; Red a soul to be saved. They connect because they need each other. It's in recognising this need that Shawshank scores: a need that, like the film, is timeless.
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