Strange, that no one at the time of general release considered Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption (1994) worthy of any distinction, much less an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Even today, it rarely appears on 100 best film lists. But in 1994 less than a handful of critics had their pens poised in praise. For the most part, audiences stayed away at the box office. After all, what could be so compelling about two hours behind the walls of a prison?
Based on a short story by Steven King The Shawshank Redemption proved that there was more than enough to inspire and keep our minds active. Darabont's screenplay does a magnificent job of fleshing out both the characters and the story, while Roger Deakin's cinematography creates indelible images of the struggle and triumph of the human spirit.
The story (set in Maine but actually shot in Mansfield Ohio) concerns Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) a banker wrongfully accused of killing his philandering wife and her lover. For this crime of passion, Andy is sentenced to life behind the walls of Shawshank Prison. One problem: Andy isn't guilty of this crime. Regrettably, he quickly learns that innocence alone cannot shield him from the harsh realities of prison life.
Inside Shawshank, Andy is severely beaten and repeatedly raped by 'the sisters': a group of gay inmates fronted by the sadistic Bogs Diamond (Mark Rolston). He is also generally abused by the guards who relish exercising their authority over the inmates in an attempt to break their spirits. But Andy is not quite so easily defeated. He remains stoic and silent.
After befriending fellow inmate, Ellis Boyd (Morgan Freeman - originally described in the novel as a red headed Irishman) Andy strikes a pact with Boyd to reunite with him on the outside when Ellis comes up for parole. Although Ellis believes that Andy is sincere he also sincerely doubts that either of them will ever see the light of day outside of Shawshank.
The system is corrupt. Warden Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton) is a crook, exercising his own moral contempt over the inmates, determined at any and all costs to keep the men he oversees from ever making their parole. Those who are released, like Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore) have systematically had their spirits destroyed by the system. Hence, they are entirely lost in the nightmarish world of societal rehabilitation beyond Shawshank's walls. In Brooks' case, his menial suffrage at a minimum wage job inside a grocery store is at an end after he takes his own life - living up to the inmate's motto of either 'get busy living, or get busy dying.'
Amidst all this hopelessness, Andy keeps everyone's spirits up on the inside. His quest to better all their lives results in a curious détente between himself and the warden. A banker by trade, Andy offers expert financial advice to Norton and his guards; offering to manage their accounts and do their taxes, all the while quietly cooking the books to expose them for their tax evasion to the FBI.
However, when a new inmate, Tommy (Gil Bellows) arrives at Shawshank he reveals to Ellis and the others that Andy is indeed innocent of the crime of murder that sent him to prison. Learning of Andy’s innocence from Tommy – but fearful of losing his most complicit tax cheat – the warden has Tommy assassinated in the prison courtyard on the eve that he is set to be paroled; thereby ensuring that Andy will remain at Shawshank for the rest of his life. Unfortunately for the warden, Andy has developed another passion in prison – escaping.
Using popular pin up posters to conceal the tunnel he is digging to freedom, Andy escapes Shawshank without a trace on a dark and stormy night. Or has he? Andy has left clever clues and enough money for Ellis to find him upon his parole. At first, Ellis seems unwilling to try, fearful that he will return to Shawshank for parole violations. But after he retraces Brooks footsteps, Ellis deciding to make his own break for the coast. Unlike Brooks, Ellis has decided to 'get busy living.' The final moments of the film are dedicated to the film's most poignant voice over narration, as Ellis and Andy are reunited on a sandy beach somewhere in Mexico – free from the tyranny and oppression of their former lives.
The Shawshank Redemption is a film of such immense poignancy that it's a little hard for this critic to objectively provide an unbias review. I loved (and continue to love) this film. It's as perfect as movies get. There is so much to admire; from the stellar performances to the inspirational score by Thomas Newman, and Roger Deakins’ stylized cinematography that makes Shawshank Prison appear, if not homey, then at least a place where both prisoners and audiences feel strangely at home.
Of course the continued mystery and tragedy of the film is that it was misperceived as a quiet little nothing upon its general release and expected to fade quickly and quietly into the night. Thankfully, this artistic exile never occurred. In fact, since its release the opposite has been true. The Shawshank Redemption is steadily growing in reputation and is today regarded as one of the truly outstanding films from the 1990s.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray disc easily bests its re-issued 2 disc SE DVD. The Bluray excels in every department. Colours are bold and fully saturated. Fine details are evident even in the most minute background information. Contrast levels are bang on perfect. Edge effects that were obvious and quite distracting on the SE DVD have been eliminated on the Blu-ray. The image is smooth and satisfying, while retaining its grain structure. This is a class 'A' rendering of a very classy production. Bravo!
The audio remains PCM 5.1 Dolby Digital but delivers a very robust sonic experience - probably not as full and rich as a DTS remastering, but we'll take it for now. Extras include the magnificently produced BBC retrospective documentary, as well as a ‘making of’ featurette, original theatrical trailer and audio commentaries. Highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)