THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1994, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Wednesday, October 12, 1994 TAG: 9410120051 SECTION: DAILY BREAK PAGE: E1 EDITION: FINAL TYPE: Movie review SOURCE: BY MAL VINCENT, MOVIE CRITIC LENGTH: Medium: 87 lines
THE MESSAGE is clear in a movie that is as old-fashioned as it is level-headed and authentic in its storytelling method.
Even behind bars, there is hope.
There is hope, too, for the movie world. There haven't been this many good films in any fall season in memory. One of them is the terribly titled ``The Shawshank Redemption,'' based on a novella by Stephen King (in one of his more compelling and less commercially horrific moods). Ostensibly, it is a prison film, complete with every cliche known to the genre - brutal guards; thuggish prisoners; a stern and unjust warden; and thoughtful, intelligent prisoners who maintain that they are innocent. It almost becomes laughable when a bird arrives - a suggestion of Burt Lancaster's ``Birdman of Alcatraz.''
Seemingly, we've seen all this before. The mythical quality of ``Cool Hand Luke'' is there. The persistent fight for survival of ``Papillon'' is there. The friendship between two prisoners from ``Kiss of the Spider Woman'' is there, although very different and more subtle.
What this film has is a compelling storytelling style that takes its own time and eventually ties all the threads together. It also has very commendable performances by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman and at least three very strong supporting performers, including a possible Oscar nomination for the veteran James Whitmore.
All this serves to offset the excessive length. At almost 2 1/2 hours, the film is so long that it sometimes makes us feel as if we are serving hard time ourselves. The investment, though, turns out to be worth it. It's one of those films that seems better several days later than it did while you were sitting through it.
The plot covers a 20-year-period from 1947 to 1967 and chronicles, among other things, an unlikely prison friendship. Robbins is helped by his baby face and calm exterior in suggesting the role of Andy Dufresne, a Portland, Maine, banker who is convicted of murdering his wife and her lover. He's sentenced to the maximum-security Shawshank Prison. He is a stoic, quiet man who is initially unpopular in prison. When he's attacked and repeatedly raped by a group of thugs who call themselves The Sisters, he somehow maintains his dignity.
His demeanor is noticed by Red, a lifer who is the prison's black market expert, well played by Morgan Freeman. Red and Andy eventually become friends. Strangely, though, the friendship is not the focus of the film; there are several little films hiding within the larger screenplay. The episodic nature diverts your attention but can be tolerated if you get into the slow rhythm of it all.
One of the subplots stars James Whitmore, the veteran who has been nominated twice for the Oscar for ``Battleground'' and ``Give `Em Hell, Harry.'' He plays the prison librarian, a man who is so well adjusted to prison that he falls apart when he is asked to adjust to the outside world. Whitmore is yet another of the competitors for this year's supporting actor Oscar.
Red proves his finesse by smuggling in a poster of Rita Hayworth for Andy. It is replaced, as time goes by, by posters of Marilyn Monroe and Raquel Welch. As it eventually turns out, these girls are a convict's best friend.
Andy becomes the financial adviser and fixer, first for a brutal guard (Clancy Brown) and then for the hypocritical warden (Bob Gunton). Andy's financial wizardry makes the warden a wealthy man, who can't afford to let his bookkeeper ever get out on parole.
``Shawshank'' is occasionally too slow and occasionally too outwardly sentimental, but if you like old movies, you'll like this one. It has the novelty to use plot development rather than unnecessary shock treatments to move forward.
Its familiarity and unsubtle bent keep it from quite becoming a great film, or even one of the year's best films, but it is a very good and reliable film. Good storytelling and good acting make the time well served. ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
CASTLE ROCK ENTERTAINMENT
Morgan Freeman, left, and Tim Robbins play convicts who become
friends in the film ``The Shawshank Redemption.''
``THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION''
Rated: R (violence, language, rape)
Starring: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, James Whitmore
Director: Frank Darabont
Mal's rating: Three and a half stars