Shadowlands is set in Oxford in the 1950s. C. S. Lewis is a university professor, a Christian apologist, and a popular author of children's books. He lives in a comfortable house with his older brother. A routine of reading, writing, and lecturing provides satisfaction to this middle-aged bachelor.
Oxford is like a deluxe monastery with vintage wine. Although his colleagues are mystified by Lewis's success as an author of children's books, they provide him with the kind of intellectual stimulation he savors. Then his predictable existence is upended by a visit from Joy Gresham, an American poet with whom he has been corresponding.
This uninhibited and witty woman meets the reticent scholar over tea. Lewis is charmed by her forthrightness and her appreciation of his work. On another visit, Joy brings her nine-year-old son Douglas who is a big fan of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe". When they spend the Christmas holidays together, Lewis learns that her marriage to an alcoholic writer is at an end.
This true story is based on a play by William Nicholson which premiered in London in 1989 and in New York in 1990. Joy arrives like a fresh and wayward wind in Lewis's musty, ivory-tower existence. It is soon obvious that they are, as one of Lewis's colleagues notes, soul mates.
Anthony Hopkins turns in an Academy Award-caliber performance as the English writer who is surprised by love. And Debra Winger is delightful as a woman who knows who she is and what she can offer another person. Richard Attenborough's subtle direction deftly orchestrates the unfolding of their relationship from friendship to deep intimacy.
After Joy's divorce comes through, Lewis secretly marries her so she can benefit from his British citizenship. Later, they are wed in a religious ceremony after she is hospitalized with terminal cancer. While Joy is in remission, they go on an idyllic honeymoon to the English countryside, a site of Lewis's childhood fantasy of paradise.
The closing section of Shadowlands is extremely touching as Joy bravely faces death and Lewis learns the hard lessons of suffering and letting go. His intellectual view that "pain is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world" is cast aside. Lewis comes to see that there are no easy answers to death or to the pain of loss. Indeed, grief is the price we pay for a love that lights up our life.
In one of the film's most poignant scenes, Lewis discovers Douglas in the attic. He hugs the boy and they both cry. We know that together they are ready to begin the journey back from sorrow. This is just one of the healing moments in this intensely personal and moving love story.