Our Rating: 5 out of 5
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
My father is one of the biggest devotees to C.S. Lewis that has ever lived. I literally grew up reading The Chronicles of Narnia, then progressed to his short allegorical novels for adults -- I was fascinated with his insight into man's sin nature with The Screwtape Letters and intrigued by the amount of wisdom that went into The Great Divorce. Eventually, I came to learn about the man himself and that led me to a handful of films made about his later years. This is the least-well known of them but also the most accurate.
Children everywhere are being swept into the wardrobe that takes them to Narnia -- at least in their imaginations. With his children's stories reaching global success, quiet and introspective Professor C.S. Lewis (Joss Ackland) is aware of his popularity but unaffected and disinterested by it. He keeps a small house with his brother Warnie (David Waller) and devotes his free time to answering each and every letter that crosses his desk. Some of them are monumental and others merely sweet expressions of gratitude. Lewis has recently begun a radio series on marriage for the BBC, and stresses the fact that he is unmarried and thus has no experience, and so will approach it from a scriptural perspective alone. His friends tease him a bit about being an expert on marriage without a wife, but he good-naturedly takes it in stride. Then, one particular letter arrives. It is from an American woman who is a "former Jewish communist atheist" and now a "convert to Christianity." The woman's name is Joy Grisham (Claire Bloom), and she credits her conversion primarily to Lewis' works. She has recently come to England with her two sons and is interested in meeting him.
Curious about her, Lewis and his brother meet her at a restaurant for tea and find her a charming, funny, likable companion who soon wins them over -- and her delightful children David (Rhys Hopkins) and Douglas (Rupert Baderman) are thrilled to meet the man who authored the wonderful stories about Narnia and the Great Lion. It does not take Joy long to become an important, vital part of Lewis' life or for her to decide it would be best to leave her abusive husband and remain in England. When it becomes apparent that the government will not renew her temporary citizenship and allow her to remain in Oxford, Lewis offers to marry her in name alone so that she might stay abroad. Little does he know that this friendship will turn into a romance and then a monumental struggle that brings him to a new awareness of the preciousness of true love, and the transcending grace of God.
If you are at all familiar with the life and works of C.S. Lewis, then you are aware of the sad turn that the story takes in the second half. I have watched a lot of tragic romances and read a number of sad books, but none of them make me cry quite as much as this film (and also the later film of the same name) does. I have attempted to discern the reason why and discovered that it is because I feel such a deep personal affection for Lewis as the author of my favorite book series. He is the man who created Aslan, a representation of Christ in an endless game of "suppose." "Suppose Christ came to another world in the form of a lion." "Suppose four children stumbled into that world." What Lewis experienced throughout his life was monumental moments of earth-shattering revelations. The loss of his mother at a young age, the negative experiences of going to war and losing his friends, his conversion from atheism due in large part to the influence of his friend and colleague J.R.R. Tolkien. And finally, what happened with Joy.
This film was made in the eighties and is therefore somewhat dated. The first couple of minutes as a sort of prologue before the story truly begins in particular are bad, but then the storyline takes off with beautiful acting and genuine emotions. What also struck me was the realism of the piece. It never feels forced or contrived and best of all, Ackland sounds like Lewis. If you have ever had the immense pleasure of listening to one of Lewis' radio programs, you will be surprised and pleased at this recreation of his unique voice. The real Douglas Grisham, who has managed the Lewis Estate for quite some time (and whom we have to thank for the magnificent Narnia adaptations of recent years) had some influence on the presentation of his mother and stepfather and so the interpretation is accurate in almost all respects. What I preferred in this version as opposed to the later one with Anthony Hopkins is that Lewis' faith takes more of a center stage, as does his spiritual struggle in marrying a divorcee. Also, while he does grapple with God toward the end, he never really loses his faith or doubts the existence of a higher power (as the other film implies).
There are two versions of this film. One is slightly longer, ran uncut on PBS and is the one I would recommend. The other is a more "sanitized" version for church groups that removed all the scenes involving pipe-smoking or alcohol consumption. The sad thing about that is, that also forced some significant conversations and scenes with Lewis' friends to be cut, and weakens the impact of the production. There is not really any content except in the form of thematic elements as a family deals with loss. Ackland turned Lewis into a charming, likable, somewhat eccentric older man that it would have been a blessing to know in real life. Someday, I look forward to meeting him.