Watching The Shawshank Redemption On The Big Screen Felt Like Heaven
Basking in the glow of the big-screen, mouth agape as Andy Dufresne threw up his hands in the rain, a lightning bolt of euphoria and hope struck my soul: ‘Salvation lies within.’
The smell of the nachos, the jet-foam rush of Pepsi, the luminous swirl of frosty drinks, the droplets of popcorn trailing ditsy patrons; tableaux of a resurrected outing. Yeah, I think it would be fair to say… I liked going back to the cinema from the start.
For me, it was a small step into post-pandemic normality. For others, it’ll be a giant leap into territory once familiar, now somewhat treacherous. In this, there’s an almost eerie aptness to The Shawshank Redemption’s return to theatres; do you feel institutionalised?
In the UK, cinemas began re-opening at the turn of July, with Odeon leading the charge alongside a very limited number of independent chains. Cineworld began welcoming film-goers in England back today, July 31, in time for new releases like Unhinged, Proxima and, if the universe allows it, The New Mutants and Tenet. Vue will re-open on August 7.
During this strange limbo with only two premieres – Australian croc-actioner Black Water: Abyss and Danish animated romp Dreambuilders – Odeon enlisted the nostalgia of old classics to plant people’s butts in its seats, including the extended Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Dark Knight trilogy, The Goonies and, of course, The Shawshank Redemption.
Frank Darabont’s 1994 prison drama, based on Stephen King’s novella, holds high reverence. Having forever maintained the number one spot on IMDb’s top 250 films, it’s both the darling of critics and a generation-spanning favourite of the everyman.
As soon as it appeared on my local cinema’s showtimes, I booked immediately. Sitting comfortably in my top five films of all time, there was no doubt I’d be there. In aid of travelling back in time to prestige stories lighting up the multiplexes, any outbreak anxiety would simply have to wait.
Comfortably slotted into my barely-padded seat, one foot on my knee, Coca-Cola and Twix Xtra in tow, even the spinning glow of Castle Rock Entertainment’s lighthouse made me feel at home (although it pales to the high of Orion Pictures’ VHS reel). ‘I’m so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel.’
From the lax inertia of phone, laptop and TV-shackled entertainment and colliding noise of roadworks, clashing plates and cutlery, whirling washing machines and spur-of-the-moment chatter, the complete sacrifice of oneself to the sight and sound of Shawshank’s imprisonment was a liberation.
Jocelyn Szcepaniak-Gillece, professor of film history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, told Vulture:
There is something that happens when a bunch of people go sit in a dark room together and watch something. It means we’re kind of thinking together at the same time. It means that we’re experiencing something together.
Moviegoing is a valuable social practice and something that can teach us about empathy and kindness to one another by immersing us in somebody else’s perspective for a couple of hours. When being in public together becomes impossible, the other things that become impossible including working together and reaching across borders to experience something together.
As a familiar ‘booming’ cinema voice urges, ‘a little bit of darkness… refines the senses… focuses the mind’. Each and every scene played out on a much deeper emotional scale, for example: Fat Ass’s barbaric beating by Captain Hadley.
From the walled speakers, the whispers of ‘fish fish fish fish’ evolved into a squall of torment. As Andy sat taciturn, the pestering of one particularly unstable prisoner grows too much, eventually breaking into hysterics. ‘And it’s Fat Ass by a nose,’ Heywood screams, jubilant with the knowledge he’s secured a booty of cigarettes at breakfast.
The laughs and boos halt with the clatter of a cell opening: the guards arrive. As the so-dubbed rotund newbie continues to cry and slobber, Hadley pulls him out and batters him to death in front of the inmates. Their disquietude seeped into me, each punch, kick and baton-bash landing like haptic feedback. Eyes wide, hushed gasps; nobody was looking away.
It’s the little moments: watching Roger Deakins’ immaculate cinematography gliding over the prison, Thomas Newman’s stark, Stoic Theme in its current, there was a peculiar weightlessness. For the first time since March, I wasn’t watching; I was there.
Just as the orange-hued sky resting upon the shoulders of the ‘convict crew that tarred the plate factory roof in the spring of ’49’ made them feel free, the audience felt normal again, ‘if only for a short while’. As Rita Hayworth’s Gilda throws back her hair, replying ‘Me?’ and igniting whooping whistling and lust, we share in Red and Andy’s smiley picture-house escape.
Brooks Hatlen’s passing, a side-character sequence that could inspire some interim social media scrolling at home, obviously hit like a ton of bricks. From the step over the bar to the ‘Brooks was here’ carving, the glare of mobiles remained extinguished. Myself, my friend and others were united in grief, our minds absent from real-world woes.
For others, letting go of the anxiety today inspires won’t be easy, nor should it. Just as Red posits: ‘Believe what you want. These walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. After long enough, you get so you depend on ’em.’
In the UK alone, there’s been more than 301,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 45,000 deaths (England even has the worst excess death rate in Europe).
After the age of ‘stay at home’, it’s unsurprising to hear of rising agoraphobia among friends and family when the government pulled the country out of lockdown to re-open pubs, shopping centres and cinemas. With restrictions now re-instated in northern parts of England amid rising infections, sitting in a room of recycled air with strangers is an even harder sell.
Let me assure you, there are measures in place. Face masks are compulsory for punters from Saturday, August 1, while there’s also markers on floors for those buying snacks, perspex screens, staff in face masks, obligatory distanced seating for individuals and groups, ushers who sometimes even shepherd audiences out row-by-row during the credits.
Corporations aren’t your friends is the common adage. However, with screens bidding to welcome people back, they will rather quickly be in a spot of bother if people don’t turn up for impending blockbusters like Wonder Woman 1984, Black Widow and No Time To Die.
Look at South Korea: in the first week of release, Peninsula – the follow-up to the incredible zombie flick Train to Busan – raked in around £12.4 million, even with stringent protocols in theatres. Compare that to the UK’s weekend box-office, built upon Pixar’s Onward, Trolls World Tour and Fellowship of the Ring, from July 24-6: £599,048.
We’ve barely begun and the industry is already bleeding. However, it isn’t a matter of ‘doing your bit’ and forcing yourself into a seat. If you’re content with home-viewing, that’s your prerogative; I for one believe in the value of more, the necessity of serenity in a dark space that isn’t your own. I’m ready, and hopefully others will be soon.
From the escape to the ethereal blue seas of Zihuatanejo, it became quite apparent this was more than a screening; rather, a life-affirming experience. We need the cinema: a place with no memory, only sanctuary.
The Shawshank Redemption is being screened in select theatres across the UK.
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