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In a week when my home was turned into a kind of Ikea-heavy minimum security unit, and I was treated by the government like a benign 80-year-old lifer who is trusted to go out once a day, watching The Shawshank Redemption for the first time was a chastening slap round the chops. Annoyed you can’t go to the pub? Hey, at least your only option for a beer doesn’t involve bargaining with a sadistic prison warden dangling you from a rooftop!
My only real sense of the film came from a friend complaining about an immersive Secret Cinema screening, where he and his girlfriend, having spent £60 each to have a nice date together, were put on prison buses, given the role of convicts, and split up for most of the evening. Perhaps for some long-suffering couples this is what you actually pay for.
Anyway, having not seen it, I felt very much in the minority. Adapted in 1994 by writer-director Frank Darabont from a Stephen King story about a man clinging on to his humanity during a wrongful sentence for murder, The Shawshank Redemption has long been deemed the No 1 movie of all time on the user-voted IMDb chart, ahead of The Godfather and The Dark Knight. It earned seven Oscar nominations, became a slow-burn hit via video rentals, and King said it was his favourite adaptation of his work (though he doesn’t like The Shining, so, pinch of salt).
It’s telling that it’s top of that IMDb list, while nowhere to be seen on the lists of greatest films put out by serious-minded institutions such as the BFI. The Shawshank Redemption is a movie, not a film: all plot and no pretension. Darabont creates some painterly moments – I loved the crane shot above the prison yard as Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) illicitly plays opera over the PA to the cons below, an image from LS Lowry – but everything is in service to the storytelling.
I was lucky: big single twists are revealed quickly on tell-tale social media, but The Shawshank Redemption uses enough of them to keep its secrets hidden. Iconic movie scenes filter through to you osmotically – in this case, those beers on the roof – and I even knew that Andy gets some kind of liberty: that arms aloft moment in the rain, another iconic scene. But I wasn’t prepared for the neatness of the narrative logic (minus an error so notorious an entire play has been made about it) or the film’s brilliant tempo: slow and steady, and then exponentially faster, with an unusual sustained coda.
Having your liberty curtailed gives this well-told yarn an extra frisson, because imprisonment – the kind we are experiencing a VR version of right now – terrifies us all, and The Shawshank Redemption plays on that terror with exacting design. It does a great job of showing how small your life becomes when cast against all that time; how pleasure narrows to the width of a cigarette. Prison rape, with its subjugation and violence made repellently taboo by homophobia, is comfortable society’s great male fear, and has power even when deployed as coyly as it is here.
The Shawshank Redemption also makes you wonder why there isn’t a prison-break movie every year: underneath the straightforward tension sits a profound thrill at the subversion of the authority we spend every day honouring.
The movie has flaws. That prison soap must be suffused with argan oil – either that or Robbins’ scalp secretes pomade, given his lustrous locks are more solid than those securing the cell doors. It’s a hugely sentimental film, for better and worse, and for me the casting of Morgan Freeman as Red isn’t ideal, even if he did get an Oscar nomination. You can’t imagine him having done anything criminal in his life, unless it was twinkling someone to death. (Perhaps this is a way the film suffers from being watched so long after it was made, with Freeman long since installed as America’s grandad.)
But there are really superb moments. Robbins is excellent, letting glee drip into Andy’s demeanour a micrometre at a time. The script has Red telling us that he’s institutionalised, but it doesn’t need to: the brief puff of air into his new harmonica, terrifying him with its potential for free expression, does it for him. And overall, that unhurried, graceful yet steely storytelling style earns it a place somewhere in the IMDb Top 250, if not the No 1 spot. Crack open some cold suds and enjoy – and be thankful your front door still opens from the inside.