The Shawshank Consecration: Revisiting the world's favourite film
Surely it's fitting to begin The Silver Screen journey with perhaps every cinephile's awakening. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) is #1 on IMDb, dubbed a 'great movie' by Roger Ebert himself and roughly 99.99% guaranteed to surface in any conversation about favourite films, actually, the best movies in general.
But what I find most incredibly fascinating is that Shawshank appears to have reached this awesome status without mind-blowing aesthetics, without an overwhelming influence of studio or star-power and, most notably, without any Oscars*.
Don't get me wrong, my respect for this film as an actor's piece and phenomenal screenplay has no limits - but what exactly is it about Shawshank that has bound audiences in unanimous agreement for 26 years?
There's the realistic (and somewhat heart-breaking) view offered by Valero in that younger audiences perhaps haven't seen the monochromatic classics such as Casablanca (1942) or Citizen Kane (1941) - I mean, I haven't*. I would expand this theory further to apply to international films too, meaning that there's a serious restriction on the average individual's internal film archive.
We are not to forget that Shawshank was in no way a commercial success either, earning a measly $28.3 million in profit even after it was nominated for Best Picture. It may sound like a lot, but to put it in perspective, it came in at #21 on the list of highest grossing R-rated films of 1994*, and that's just R-rated movies...
So ostensibly, Shawshank is just another great modern classic with no defined cultural relevance; unless of course, it's not and how dare you suggest that it is!
My favourite description is Hasan's; Shawshank is a 'cinematic alchemy of a kind that's all too rare'. This alchemy is conjured by the hands of two brilliant performers; its recipe written with words of hope and strength.
It's almost cruel to reduce the enriched spirit of this film to entertainment, yet also a shame to bring such a humble narrative to the status of artistry. Each minute grows precious as time escapes the characters, circadian rhythms rising and falling with the pressures of their imprisonment. Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) maintains an enigmatic restraint and awareness that is nothing short of captivating, whilst Red's (Morgan Freeman) narrational perspective pours over your senses with every word.
If acting is a form of truth, then Robbins and Freeman in their roles honestly and openly encapsulated the freedom humanity deserves. Together, they reimagine the characters trapped behind the bars with them, as we forget condemnation and accept, as titularly implied, their redemption. It is the complexity of these characters, intertwined with a plot of the highest sophistication, that earns this film every ounce of upmost respect.
Is it the world's greatest film? Well, can anything ever be? What is consecrated in one nation may mean nothing to the next, and if last year's Academy Awards proved anything, it's that international films deserve more exploration. Nonetheless, The Shawshank Redemption is more than a modern classic; it's one of those stories that change expectations, remind you of what cinema can do and how film can make you feel.
FUN FILM FACT
Although not mentioned in the movie, Red was sentenced to Shawshank for murdering his wife by cutting the breaks on her car. The guy wanted the insurance money, but instead got three other people killed too and prison, which isn't ideal in anyone's books.
*If your mouth has just dropped to the floor, or you've begun to argue something along the lines of "BUT WHAT ABOUT BEST PICTURE?", may I remind you that 1994 was an abnormally outstanding year for film and if you'd like to deprive Forrest Gump of its Best Picture award then be my guest.
*Working on it
*The highest grossing R-rated film was True Lies with J.L.C. and the sexy Schwartz.
Hasan, Z 2019, '25 years after its release, 'Shawshank Redemption' reminds us that good things never die', Datebook, blog post, 26 September, viewed 3 August 2020, <https://datebook.sfchronicle.com/movies-tv/25-years-after-its-release-shawshank-redemption-reminds-us-that-good-things-never-die>
Valero, G 2011, 'The "Shawshank" Greatness', Roger Ebert, blog post, 25 February, viewed 3 August 2020, <https://www.rogerebert.com/far-flung-correspondents/the-shawshank-greatness>