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Catching Up with Classics: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Welcome back, reader. I’m glad to have you with me for my ninth dip into Jazmine’s Extreme Embarrassment: picking through a long list of fan-favourite films I’ve never seen, watching them for the first time and giving my opinion on whether they’re worthy ‘classics’.

Working on this series has been a great distraction for me, since 2020 has been such a write-off. I’ve been on so many adventures: melted Nazi faces; followed Hobbits into Middle Earth; watched John Hurt’s chest burst open; saved a princess; fought off Slimer; escaped being terminated; landed my own reality TV show (and not known it), and saved Detroit from killer robots.

What’s on September’s agenda? Well, I’m off to prison.

September’s pick: The Shawshank Redemption

We begin in Maine 1947, and young banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is charged with the murder of his wife and her lover. Sent straight to Shawshank State Penitentiary, Andy’s white collar status sets him as an outcast, and he soon becomes an easy target for prison rapist, Bogs (Mark Rolston) and his cronies.

Over time, Andy is befriended by Ellis ‘Red’ Redding (Morgan Freeman), known amongst fellow inmates as being a contraband smuggler – he can get you what you want, within reason. Andy asks for a large poster of movie starlet Rita Hayworth and a rock hammer; Red delivers.

We move forward to 1949. Andy overhears one of the guards complain that he’s being ripped off over inheritance tax; Andy offers to help him legally shelter the money. Impressing the staff, he’s given a new job, helping out elderly inmate and prison librarian Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore). On the surface this seems like a nice gesture, but it’s all a front by prison warden Norton (Bob Gunton), using Andy’s skills to hide away thousands of dollars. Despite the corruption, Andy continues to work hard and starts writing regular letters to the state, requesting funding to improve the library.

Now it’s 1954. The library receives funding and Andy collects boxes of donated books, papers, magazines and records, playing a clip of one over the tanoy system – and ending up in solitary confinement for it. Now it’s 1963, and Norton is harvesting tonnes of cash, forcing Andy’s hand into helping him launder upwards of $3 million (in today’s money).

In 1965, juvenile Tommy Williams (Gil Bellows) is incarcerated, becoming friends with Andy, Red and their band of merry men. Soon learning who Andy is, Tommy tells him that his previous roommate had all but admitted to killing Andy’s wife and her lover, proving his long-claimed innocence. Andy approaches Norton with this new ‘proof’, but is pooh-poohed out of his office. When Andy threatens to leak his laundering scheme, Norton sends him straight back to solitary confinement, and gets rid of Tommy in his own way.

On his release from his second stint in solitary, Andy tells Red he dreams of living in Zihuatanejo, a coastal town in Mexico, known for its endless views of the Pacific Ocean. He tells Red that if he ever gets out, to look for him there. Red, worried about Andy’s mental state, is convinced he’s going to commit suicide as a means of ‘escape’, with his proof of innocence shot to bits. When Andy doesn’t appear at roll call the next morning, Red believes it to be true, but when Norton searches his cell, Andy is nowhere to be seen…

Taken from the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, director Frank Darabont offered $5,000 for the rights to adapt it. King didn’t understand how the story – which focused on Red’s contemplation of Andy for 96 pages – could be made into a blockbuster hit, but he approved (and never cashed the cheque!). Darabont finished the script over an eight-week period, making minor changes to King’s story but keeping its ‘tall tale’ heart.

Freeman was cast against the story’s description of Red being a white Irishman, hence the character’s quip ‘Maybe it’s because I’m Irish‘ when Andy asks him about his nickname. A long list of names was considered for the role of Andy: Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, Nicolas Cage, Charlie Sheen and Kevin Costner. It was only once Darabont saw Robbins in Jacob’s Ladder that he was offered the role, but that came with its own agreement; that they hire Roger Deakins for cinematography. Fun fact: the novel’s non-existent Rita character even attracted its own auditionees, including a man in drag…

Tensions were reportedly high on the set, mainly between the director and his cast. As a fan of repetitive takes, Darabont would make his players go again and again and again, to the point where Freeman would refuse. One scene I’d bet Robbins didn’t want to repeat was his escape out of the sewage pipe, the mud a mix of water, chocolate syrup and sawdust. In the film, Andy wriggles through the muck until he reaches a stream of water; in reality, this stream was certified as toxic, so time was spent creating a dam to decontaminate it. In Robbins words, ‘When you’re doing a film, you want to be a good soldier.’

Has it aged well?

The beauty of a ‘period piece’ (like Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Princess Bride) means it feels like a film doesn’t really age, and that’s the same for Shawshank Redemption. Set in the 50’s onwards, the costuming and set design hark back to another time, so it doesn’t feel dated. While the film technology is of the 90’s, it pairs well with the visuals – it’s not perfectly crisp and clear, and that’s okay.

Hindsight is 2020

If you’re expecting many female roles in a story set in a 1950s all-male prison, you’d be sadly mistaken. Aside from Andy’s wife featured in a flashback within the first few minutes, that’s all we see until the last few scenes set back in ‘the outside’ – and that’s okay with me. It’s not like we’re going to see many housewives pop up reading in the library, are we?

As for people of colour, Freeman seems to be the only Black inmate (from what I could see, I’d have to delve into another watch to check). However, once escaped from the prison’s walls, we’re met with crowds of faces, both black and white; what our characters would expect to see in normal, everyday life. Were black inmates housed elsewhere? Why was Morgan the exception? Or was one POC enough for the cast of main roles? Who knows.

Classy or classless classic?

CLASSY! A TRUE CLASSY CLASSIC! I finished it, mouth open and exclaimed, ‘That was BEAUTIFUL!‘ I laughed, I cried, I felt warm and glowy inside. Out of the nine from my list (so far), this is the title I regret ignoring for so many years. Morgan, Tim, Frank – you have my sincerest apologies!

My Catching Up with Classics series returns in October with Halloween

The Shawshank Redemption is also getting a fancy Ultimate Collector’s Edition, released this 28th September. Find out now and order right here!

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