The story of The Shawshank Redemption is well known. Based on a Stephen King novella, the film was released in 1994 to a warm critical reception, but failed to turn a profit at the box office. Finding an audience through TV and video, it gradually grew to become a phenomenon, a canonised classic, and something close to a religious experience for many. The story may be well known, but the mystery remains: What is it about The Shawshank Redemption that has such a profound effect on people?

The film tells the story of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), an educated banker sentenced to life for the murder of his wife and her lover. In prison, Andy inspires his fellow inmates with his courage and humanity, and has a profound effect on Red, an older prisoner who has given up hope.

Unlike many films of the 1990s, Shawshank has no ‘high concept’ plot premise, and is somewhat episodic compared with the tight, linear narratives of many films. This sense of freedom in the storytelling allows the film to consistently throw up genuine surprises, as the viewer isn’t constantly on guard for clues and plot points. In hindsight, for example, we tend to forget how successfully the film leads us to expect a very different resolution.

Shawshank is regarded as a feelgood classic, but only achieves this by first visiting the darkest places imaginable. It’s easy to forget how violent and depressing the story is, but it’s only by evoking a powerful sense of horror that Frank Darabont’s masterful screenplay earns its climactic feeling of release.

The film’s inspirational power is heightened by the use of religious references and symbolism throughout. Some argue, compellingly, that the film can be read as a religious parable, with Andy as a Christ figure, who sacrifices himself in order to inspire those around him, and is figuratively killed and reborn.

Part of the film’s popularity is the way it warrants rewatching, as the quality of the writing means each new viewing throws up new details and pleasures. The tension when the warden checks Andy’s cell, for example, is only fully appreciated second time round. Similarly, the wonderful dialogue is best enjoyed with the leisure of already knowing the story; Andy’s reply in court, for example, to the accusation that the disappearance of his gun is convenient: “Since I am innocent of this crime, sir, I find it decidedly inconvenient that the gun was never found.”

The story obviously inspired the makers as much as it does audiences, as it marks a career high for most of the considerable talents involved. The cinematography by long-time Coen collaborator Roger Deakins is awe-inspiring, Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins were never more touching and restrained, and Frank Darabont’s direction displays the mastery of a man making his twentieth film rather than, as this was, his debut.

The Shawshank Redemption is perhaps the only undisputed classic of the 1990s, although it’s more popular with the public than with critics, who tend to be slightly sniffy about it’s feelgood magic. In this respect, it has much in common with the other classics with which it is often compared; Casablanca and It’s A Wonderful Life; company which suggests Shawshank will remain a popular favourite for decades to come.

DVD review

The Shawshank Redemption is released as a special tenth anniversary three disk box-set, and is an appropriately reverential, comprehensive package. The set includes the film itself, thankfully, as well as a number of revealing documentaries, interviews and other bonus features.

The technical quality is excellent throughout, with slick menus and navigation, and a crisp audio track that makes the most of Thomas Newman’s powerful score. There is an informative commentary from the engaging Darabont, as well as subtitles, and an audio description track for the visually impaired.

The extras are impressive, and include cast and crew biographies, memorable quotes, and two theatrical trailers: the original, and one made for the rerelease. There’s an invaluable, well-researched documentary from film critic Mark Kermode, as well as a round table discussion of the film by Darabont, Robbins and Freeman, plus another documentary about the production process.

As if this weren’t enough (when in fact it is) there’s a third disk, which has extended interviews with many of the cast and crew, and footage from the making of the film. By this point, there’s very little new information being shared, but given the devotion the film seems to inspire, no doubt some fans will appreciate this extra material.

Overall, this is a first-class package which has obviously been put together with great care. At under twenty pounds, it represents good value, and will enrich the DVD collection of any film lover.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Dir. Frank Darabont
Stars: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, William Sadler, Clancy Brown, Gil Bellows
Genre: Drama

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