Thank the gods for video.
On initial release back in 1994 this movie was critically well received but under performed at the box office, but because of video and television it’s since come to be regarded, deservedly, as a classic.
Based on a Stephen King novella the movie follows starts of in 1947 with Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is wrongly convicted for the murder of his wife and her lover, winding up in Shawshank prison. The film is narrated by fellow convict Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), who’s serving life for murder himself and who develops a friendship with Andy.
Red’s experience and knowledge of the prison helps Andy to acclimatize, and despite mutual respect and affection the two differ in world view, with Red being slightly more cynical than the idealistic and hopeful Andy.
Andy initially struggles at the prison but due to his business sense he is able to help several of the guards in financial matters, which earns him some protection from a vicious gang who target him. Andy clings to hope and works hard to make the best of prison, working hard to develop the prison library and carving chess pieces for himself, becoming much loved among the convicts, and vital financial help to the prison Warden, Norton (Bob Gunton) and his various dodgy money-making schemes.
Salvation appears in the form of a young prisoner, Tommy (Gil Bellows), who Andy takes under his wing, and who, on learning about Andy’s past discovers that his former cellmate in a previous prison was actually responsible for the killings Andy is serving time for. However, with Andy being so important and fearing discovery the warden takes steps to stop this from happening, killing Tommy.
This appears to break Andy’s spirits and Red begins to fear for him and his mental state. During the night Andy enacts a plan he’s been working for years and escapes the prison, going on to flee the country, stopping along the way to clean out the accounts for the warden’s schemes and submitting information to the authorities which exposes the events of the prison.
Years later Red is paroled and recalling instructions left by Andy, he too heads for Mexico where the friends are reunited.
This movie is hands down brilliant, it’s shot beautifully and the pacing is wonderful, but what really makes it work are the performances and the script.
Morgan Freeman is superb as Red, the wise jailbird who acts as Andy’s guide and the audiences narrator. Freeman brings his usual magnetic, respectable charisma to the role and has bags of easy going charm throughout, although there’s a streak of steely cynicism within the character. He captures perfectly the disillusionment of the character, and the way that Andy’s influence over him starts to relight his hope and optimism.
And then there’s his voice over. Freeman is blessed with a gorgeous, comforting voice which is a joy to listen to and his warmth and delivery add an extra layer to the film, with the narration being wonderfully well written.
Opposite Freeman, Tim Robbins is also on great form, with Andy being a likable, engaging character and his quiet, distracted manner making him stick out in the tough world of the prison. It’s a quiet, understated performance but Robbins is an amiable on screen presence and captures Andy’s quiet dignity and optimism.
The script is beautiful, with an almost lyrical quality at times and a plethora of fantastic, insightful lines and well crafted phrases. Red’s narration is a treat, with real wit and humour laced in with the tragedy and hardships faced by the characters. And the film is filled with stand out moments, including a heartbreaking sequence where long term prisoner Brooks (James Whitmore) struggles to cope with life in the outside world following his parole and Freeman’s sensational work during Red’s parole hearing, where he delivers a passionate and powerful speech about regret and his life.
Frank Darabont’s direction is sublime, allowing the movie to unfold at a slow, languid pace which captures the way time must drag for the prisoners and also a flair for powerful, evocative sequences like in the scene where Andy plays music across the PA system, allowing beauty to enter the grim prison environment for once and Andy’s rain drenched escape.
The film’s ending is one of my favourites, with Red making his journey south, reinvigorated by the promise of new freedom and reunion with his friend, and the final reunion is handled beautifully, with the camera moving away, showing the freedom and space the men now have, but also allowing the characters to reunite in private.
I’ve seen this movie a half a dozen times now, and every time it utterly captivates me. It commands all of my attention and always succeeds in moving me. It’s an example of pure, emotive storytelling and thoroughly deserves the high regard it’s held in. A true classic.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.