9 August 2010

Why does everyone love The Shawshank Redemption (dir. Frank Darabont)? From a film that grossed just $28 million on it’s release (barely covering the production costs), Shawshank has become one of the greatest word-of-mouth success stories in movie history. It was nominated for 7 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor (for Morgan Freeman), but failed to win any in a year dominated by Steven Spielberg’s similarly epic, but ultimately inferior Forrest Gump. It is the highest rated film on Internet Movie Database to date.

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Shawshank is a remarkably low-key film, for a classic. It doesn’t have the sweeping love story of Casablanca, or the razor-sharp comedy and action of Pulp Fiction, or the wow-factor of 2001: A Space Odyssey; the action was deemed manageable enough for it to be turned into a stage play. What Shawshank has, which only Casablanca of those films can match, is heart; it could even be seen as a kind of Casablanca for the modern age (although it’s story begins at roughly the same time).

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It is 1947, and banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is committed to Shawshank prison for the murder of his wife and her lover. He is described by the judge as a ‘cold’ man, and is subsequently subjected to prison beatings and frequent sexual assaults by other prisoners. His time inside is described by Red (Freeman), a negro prisoner who seems to have settled for a life inside, and who can procure anything a prisoner with something to trade might want. Dufresne’s battle for survival, and his dealings with the prison warden and the other prisoners forms the core of the story.

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Shawshank, as the tagline asserts, is a movie about Hope. There can surely be very little that its audiences can directly relate to (when was the last time you crawled through a prison’s effluent pipe?) but the simple theme of a man striving to prove himself worthy in his own eyes, and in the eyes of others, resonates with it’s fans. Andy Dufresne is imprisoned for a crime of passion, and whether or not he committed it (“Everyone in here is innocent, you know that?” as Red quips) he sets about serving his time in the best way possible, educating the other prisoners, getting them cold beers, helping the warden and the guards fiddle their taxes, and generally making himself the most popular guy in Shawshank. I won’t spoil the ending for anyone who is lucky enough to have the chance to watch it for the first time, but it packs an extraordinary emotional punch for a Stephen King novella.

\r\nShawshank’s success, like it’s protagonist, is based on it’s basic goodness. It speaks to the justice-giver in us all, and like Andy, in the long run, it got it’s just desserts.