The Shawshank Redemption is the Ole Faithful of the celluloid universe. The cinematic equivalent of a big hug and tub of ice cream rolled into one. This is possibly a little surprising considering most of the action takes place in a brutal prison run by a sadistic warden and filled with all manner of degenerates and reprobates. Set in the sweltering forties, this tangled tale of crime and punishment, morality and corruption, still has the power to enthral and inspire.
Any film featuring such an array of murderers and sociopaths requires a calm, soothing presence to charm and ingratiate the general audience and cynical jaded hacks like myself. In the business we call this the Morgan Freeman role. Thankfully in this film, fulfilling the Freeman role is…uh…Morgan Freeman who stars as Red, a lifer who thrives as a fixer within the straitened confines of the southern gothic institution of a prison.
With his expressive eyes and mellifluous tones, Freeman is able to evoke sympathy and goodwill in equal measure as Red, and you almost forget that he’s a convicted murderer serving life imprisonment. Tim Robbins provides able support as Andy Dufresne, a recent arrival to Shawshank, also found guilty of murder although he, like most of the inmates at Shawshank, claims he was wrongly convicted.
Andy is something of a rarity in Shawshank, a professional banker, a white collar criminal surrounded by blue collar crooks. It’s very much first day of school awkwardness to start with except of course at the end of the day instead of going home to the loving embrace of your parents, there is only the embrace of your big, hairy cellmate and he has got other things on his mind than reassuring you. Andy does his best to keep himself to himself but, just like school, there’s sometimes no hiding place from enemies.
Enter Freeman who befriends the socially maladroit Andy and takes him under his wing. Red procures various essential objects in for Andy, a small rock hammer, a poster of Rita Hayworth, the latest Justin Bieber single, you get the idea. Andy also gains the trust of Shawshank’s plethora of correctional officers headed by the snarling Byron Hadley (Clancy Brown) by becoming their unofficial accountant. This raises the interest of the pious warden, Sam Norton, (Bob Gunton), a sanctimonious man fond of quoting the Bible and laundering money from organisations keen to profit from using cheap prison labour.
Andy adapts to the rigours of prison life as best he can whilst never giving up on his dream of being acquitted, exonerated and freed. He helps secure funding for a new prison library, he assists other inmates in gaining educational qualifications, he even indulges in the odd act of rebellion by playing the Marriage of Figaro on the speakers to the prison courtyard. Not very rock n’roll but point made. As the decades pass, Andy is still unable to let go of his dream of leaving Shawshank, an ideal that Red believes to be increasingly desperate and unhealthy.
Then, one day, in an act of David Copperfield-style audacity, Andy disappears from his cell. The perplexed warden and guards wander around his empty cell pondering on how such an act of escapology could have taken place. Well, quite easily as it turned out. The poster on the wall of the cell was hiding a giant gaping hole that Andy had been excavating for the best part of two decades, and no cell inspection, visit or roll call had hitherto discovered. But it doesn’t matter because Andy is finally free! In the film’s finale, a recently released Red is able to track Andy down to a small fishing village in Mexico and celebrate their mutual freedom.
Obviously my review doesn’t do justice to the full intricacies of Shawshank. As the quote goes – “in life’s school of war, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and Shawshank State penitentiary is as dark and bloody a school of war as you are likely to find. A cage with big beasts and the occasional rare bird such as Andy, never giving up or compromising in the face of overwhelming despair and squalor. Hope, in the form of a rock hammer or other adapted digging implement, can set you free.