The film takes place just as Lewis is winding down the Narnia Chronicles—and receiving his fair share of ribbing from his colleagues about his love of “magic” and potential Freudian overtones in his work. World famous as an author and lecturer, Lewis and his brother Warnie have settled into the comfortable albeit insular life of Oxford academia. The happy equilibrium of their world is seriously rocked, however, with the arrival of Joy Davidman Gresham, one of Lewis’s most ardent American admirers. Claiming to be on vacation in England with her son Douglas, Joy writes Lewis asking if she might pay him a complimentary visit. Little does Lewis realize that honoring her request will seriously alter the rest of his life.
Brash, witty, and intelligent, it quickly becomes clear that Joy is no wide-eyed groupie. Despite her frankness, Lewis is quite taken by her, to the point that he invites her and Douglas to spend Christmas with him and Warnie. It’s during this time that he learns Joy isn’t really on vacation; she’s left her husband, who is an abusive alcoholic, and is trying to start a new life. When Christmas is over, Joy and Douglas head back to America to sort out her divorce, and Lewis returns to his work. Without Joy around, however, things just aren’t the same. That situation is rectified a short while later when Lewis discovers that Joy and Douglas have returned to England, this time for good. There’s just one problem: To maintain her residency, Joy needs to marry an Englishman. Would Lewis be willing? Always the gentleman, Lewis complies, and the two undergo a secret civil ceremony.
Though bound together legally, Lewis and Joy maintain a relationship as friends who claim to have no romantic intentions. This uneasy truce is shattered when Joy is diagnosed with an advanced case of cancer. Suddenly, all of the emotions Lewis has been suppressing leap to the fore as he realizes how much Joy means to him. Her illness also calls Lewis to account on other levels.
Throughout the early part of the film, Lewis is shown blithely lecturing on the topic of suffering, referring to pain as “God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” “We are like blocks of stone,” says Lewis, “out of which the sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of His chisel, which hurt so much, are what makes us perfect.” Although his argument seems to sew things up neatly from a logical point of view, one senses that it will do little to comfort those in the midst of grief. Lewis discovers this firsthand as he struggles to make sense of Joy’s illness, going through a full range of emotions, from anger, to shock, to grief. When the blows of God’s chisel begin to fall, for perhaps the first time in his adult life, Lewis, the Oxford don with all the answers, realizes he still has a lot to learn after all. And this time experience—not books—will be his teacher.
I was surprised by how much Shadowlands moved me emotionally. The way people have canonized Lewis today; it is difficult to imagine him as a romantic being—much less a sexual one—so it is good to see him humanized in this way. His relationship with Joy is tender, touching, and real. The viewer’s sympathies also go to young Douglas, who not only loses his mother but also does so in a strange land amongst people he barely knows. That said; it’s difficult not to see the hand of God in this situation, placing Douglas in the home of Lewis, who went through exactly the same sort of loss as a young boy. The two provide much needed support and understanding to each other during their time of grief.
On another level, I found this film is a good example of how the church should and should not respond to pain and suffering in the world. In the recent past, the church has felt the need to provide quick and sometimes easy answers to the problem of pain. But through Lewis’s journey, we come to realize that while developing a theoretical response to pain is important and necessary, sometimes the best thing we can do for those who are suffering is come alongside them and share in their grief. The time for answers will come, but even then we need to realize that there are things the heart can know that the mind will never understand.