Any fan of CS Lewis will recognise that title immediately as it’s one of the key themes of his theology – the idea, taken from Plato, that this life is a mere shadow, or copy, of a more perfect life hereafter. My own view is that any speculation about the life to come is imponderable: the important thing is to live life here on earth to the full. And this is something Lewis signally failed to do – at least until the day he met Joy Davidman.
This story is told in the film of that name.
Directed by Leicester local Richard Attenborough, it features Anthony Hopkins in the main role and Debra Winger as the American divorcee who blows his life open and gives him some real-life experience of the thing he’s been writing and lecturing on for years: love. After corresponding with him for some time she comes over to England and asks for a meeting. The clash of cultures is immediately evident when she enters the hushed confines of a smart hotel tea-room and, having failed to obtain information from the waiter, says in a loud voice: ‘Anyone here called Lewis?’
The fascination of these early encounters comes from precisely that clash of cultures. Lewis, the buttoned-up academic, lives among other, half-comatose academics who haven’t had a new thought since the eighteenth century and are scared to death of independent women. Lewis, too, is scared but to his credit he is also intrigued, piqued and moved by her. As their friendship grows (and that is all it is, despite her being divorced and moving to London with her son) they gradually become essential to each other, to the point where she asks him to marry her. But at the time it’s a marriage of convenience: she wants British citizenship, and Lewis obliges. I can’t help thinking, though, that this is the only kind of marriage he could allow himself to enter at this point, being so deeply reluctant to let himself loose.
But there’s a twist in the plot. Answering the phone one day, Joy falls like a puppet whose strings have been cut and they discover that her femur has been snapped right through. It’s cancer: and the prognosis does not look good. But it takes this time of crisis to get through to Lewis that he is in fact in love with this woman and so in a touching bed-side ceremony they get married ‘in the eyes of God.’ Some of the best scenes in the film follow as she goes into remission and they have a belated honeymoon in Herefordshire before the inevitable happens. It only adds to the irony to know that two of Lewis’s previous books were entitled ‘The Problem of Pain’ and ‘Surprised by Joy’.
It’s a very well-directed and well-acted film; subtle and just right for the period. They have resisted any attempt to modernise; and Lewis’s agonisings over how to behave over tea remind me very much of my own parents undergoing similar agonies about how to behave when someone unusual came to visit. (This is also dealt with very amusingly in ‘A Fish Called Wanda’, another film where a buttoned-up Brit falls in love with a breezy American.)
Shadowlands has a number of Leicester connections; not only directed by an Attenborough, it also features Quorn station in the county (which stands on the Great Central Railway and runs steam trains). But for me mainly it was a trip into the past; and a not entirely comfortable one, at that.
Still, go watch:
*that’s not a significant date, by the way – just an old one