Starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger with direction by Richard Attenborough, this film chronicles the romance of famed Christian professor and author, C.S. “Jack” Lewis with the American poet Joy Gresham. Jack is by now a respected professor at Oxford and a widely acclaimed lecturer who often speaks on the issue of human suffering. In his personal life, he is rather reserved. He lives with his older brother Warnie and spends times with his colleagues discussing topics of all sorts at the local pub in the evenings.
It is not until he receives a letter from an American admirer named Joy Gresham that his life seemingly begins to change. He first accepts to meet her only to be gracious, but soon their relationship develops into a close bond. Jack meets Joy’s son Douglas who is enthralled by Narnia. He even offers them a place to stay during the Christmas season, since they have nowhere else to go. Lewis and Gresham are very different people, to say the least. He is a quiet intellectual with the sensibilities of an Englishman, while she is a plain -speaking American who does not mince words. However, these differences bring them closer together because they help each other to view the world in a radically new light. Jack learns how Gresham’s marriage is going badly and he settles to marry her in a practical union so she and Douglas can stay in England. They do not speak of it much and it hardly seems real. Joy calls him on it realizing for herself that he allows no one to challenge him. There is no vulnerability to him whatsoever.
However, then Joy is diagnosed with bone cancer and slowly but surely she begins to deteriorate. For the second time in his lif,e Lewis understands the anguish that comes when a loved one is suffering. Because, the fact is, he most definitely loves Joy, and it simply took a tragedy to make him realize it. As with any inexplicable suffering, Lewis is tested in his faith, and the reality human suffering has new meaning to him. It is no longer just lecture material, becoming a far more personal process.
Although this film is not so much focused on C.S. Lewis as a Christian theologian or apologist, I think Anthony Hopkins does a wonderful job of portraying him as a kindly and gentle man of faith. He struggles with doubts and fears like every human, but he found something wonderful in his love for Joy which ultimately changed him.
Debra Winger must also be commended because she played well off of Hopkins and even though I have no picture of the real Gresham, Winger seemed to embody her. In some ways, I found her most beautiful when she was bedridden, absent of all makeup and seemingly so pure. It positively tears your heart out watching her son say a tearful goodnight or to look on as Jack stays up with her. This is a better picture of real, unadulterated love than most films can hope to manage because it very rarely becomes a sappy melodrama instead resorting to more deliberate means. As Jack says we live in the “Shadowlands,” but amidst the pain and suffering, love seems to shine through even brighter.
This was such an enlightening film for me because I always envision C.S. Lewis as a scholar and rational thinker, which he was. But he also had a vulnerable human side and this film, as well as A Grief Observed (written after Joy’s death), prove that point. It’s hard not to feel for him and that’s part of the beauty of this story.