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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Shawshank Redemption (Two-Disc Special Edition)
The Shawshank Redemption (Two-Disc Special Edition)
Warner Bros. // R // October 5, 2004
List Price: $26.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted October 14, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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The movie

It's hard to find a place to start writing about The Shawshank Redemption, because the film is so perfectly balanced and beautifully composed that it's a lot easier just to admire it than to take it apart and see how it works. You could say that The Shawshank Redemption is a film about hope and perseverance, but that doesn't quite capture how those qualities are expressed in such an honest and unsentimental way. You could remark that The Shawshank Redemption is a prison-break movie, and although that would give a well-deserved nod to some elements of the film's plot, it would miss the main point of the story. You could approach it by saying that it's a film about a couple of very distinctive characters, and their friendship; that's probably the closest you'll come to being able to sum up The Shawshank Redemption in just one sentence.

The Shawshank Redemption tells the story of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a Maine banker who's sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of his wife and her lover. But even though his life has been turned upside down, Andy refuses to shed the dignity and self-respect he had as a free man... and although he's seen as a cold fish by many of his fellow inmates,he's befriended by long-timer "Red" (Morgan Freeman). The film chronicles Andy's experiences in prison as year piles on year behind bars, and we see how Andy struggles through the horrors of his first few years and, little by little, makes a place for himself in the peculiar society of the prison. As Red is all too aware, Andy is walking a tightrope between the madness of unwarranted hope on the one side, and the defeating experience of becoming "institutionalized" on the other. Red himself has accepted the fate of being an "institutional man," one who wouldn't know how to live outside of Shawshank... although after getting to know Andy Dufresne, his life at Shawshank could never be the same.

Developing a film from Stephen King's novella "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" was a felicitous idea on two fronts: one, because novellas or short novels seem to be better suited for the screen than either short stories or full-length novels; and two, because Stephen King is really at his best in the medium-length format. Despite his success with longer novels, I'd argue that King's shorter works, like "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," "The Langoliers," "The Long Walk," Dolores Claiborne, and Misery, are where we see his storytelling skills at their most polished and powerful. Director Frank Darabont's decision to adapt King's novella was the first of many sound creative decisions on the project.

The Shawshank Redemption is one of those rare instances in which a film adapts a story that was already very good to begin with and then improves on it. The film retains the characters and essential incidents of the story faithfully – in fact, it's amazing how well Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman "fit" their respective characters from the novella, even though physically they're almost nothing like their written counterparts – but freely edits, compresses, and elaborates as needed to weave a story that works even better than its source material.

Most notably, the ending is significantly different (don't worry, I'm not going to reveal any spoilers). Andy's plan is more complex and more devilishly clever, and the final events surrounding the Warden are completely new to the film. The final image of the film, shown as Morgan Freeman provides the final voiceover, is likewise not present in the original novella. The result is an ending that packs an emotional punch; it takes the original satisfying ending of the novella and deepens it, giving it that extra kick that it needs to really be outstanding.

The Shawshank Redemption is brought to life by a stellar cast: not just Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, though they of course are the two actors who really make the movie work, but also an excellent supporting cast. Bob Gunton and Clancy Brown turn in chilling performances as Warden Norton and Captain Hadley, respectively; they're terrible people but also completely believable. James Whitmore is excellent as the elderly prison librarian, Brooks, and even the tertiary characters like Red's friend Haywood (William Sadler) are well-realized. It's a testament to the craftsmanship of the film that despite the moderately large cast, there's never any sense that you have to "keep track" of the characters: we get to know them exactly as much as the story calls for, and each character is woven tightly into the story.

The Shawshank Redemption was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Morgan Freeman), and Best Writing, though inexplicably it won none; it was edged out in several categories by the juggernaut of Forrest Gump, although in my view The Shawshank Redemption is the better film. But none of that really matters: what matters is that it's a great film, and ten years after its original release, it has solidly established its reputation as a modern classic.

The DVD

The Shawshank Redemption: Special Edition is a two-disc set, packaged in a slim single-wide plastic keepcase.

Video

The Shawshank Redemption appears in a lovely widescreen anamorphic transfer, at its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The image is crisp and almost totally clean: there's no noise at all in the picture, even in challenging shots like a full blue sky, and the print is in excellent condition with only a few minor flecks appearing here and there. While the contrast is a bit heavier than it should be in the very darkest scenes, in every other situation the contrast is handled perfectly. Colors look natural, whether it's in the drab color palette of the prison cells or the more vibrant palette of the world outside. I could see almost no edge enhancement in the image, and the result is a nicely detailed and sharp picture.

I did a side-by-side comparison of the SE and the earlier release, and as far as I can tell, the transfer is identical.

Audio

The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack for The Shawshank Redemption provides a clean and crisp audio experience. Every detail of the sound is clear and well balanced with the other elements of the soundtrack, and the overall sound is always natural. However, for all practical purposes, this might as well be a very good 2.0 track, because the rear surround channels are barely touched. During most of the film, the back channels are completely silent; they're only used to present the theme music and a few background sound effects, like the water in the prison showers. As a result, many scenes that could have sounded very impressive, like the convicts shouting at the "new fish" as they enter the prison, aren't presented to their full advantage. Even so, the track is surprisingly full-sounding and pleasing to the ear.

The SE's 5.1 soundtrack is, as far as I can tell, identical to that presented on the earlier DVD release.

Extras

Since the audio and video transfer of the film is identical to the earlier, non-SE release, the make-or-break buying decision for the Special Edition will have to be based on the special features. There's a substantial amount of material here, so fans of the film will likely be pleased with the new release on that account.

On the first disc, the main attraction is a full-length audio commentary from screenwriter/director Frank Darabont, who is quite articulate and offers some interesting thoughts about his film. We also get a theatrical trailer for the film on this disc.

The second disc holds the bulk of the special features. First off is a 31-minute featurette called "Hope Springs Eternal: A Look Back at The Shawshank Redemption." It's a nicely done piece that brings together present-day interviews with Frank Darabont, Stephen King, Morgan Freeman, Tim Robbins, and others involved with the film. It's basically a retrospective, with the various interviewees reflecting on what Shawshank meant to them, the process of making the film, and its audience reception.

Next is a longer piece, "Shawshank: The Redeeming Feature." This 48-minute featurette appears to have been made as a separate mini-film, and even appears in anamorphic widescreen. It attempts to answer the question of "what makes The Shawshank Redemption so good?" by interviewing various cast and crew members. One interesting aspect of this piece is its on-site look at Mansfield Prison, where Shawshank was filmed; we get to hear from a former warden and a former inmate of that prison for some insights to the reality of prison life in the "real Shawshank." There's also some consideration of the production process, from casting to filming and test screenings.

The third main special feature on Disc 2 is a 42-minute episode of "The Charlie Rose Show," with Frank Darabont, Morgan Freeman, and Tim Robbins discussing the film and its impact as considered from the point of view of its 10th anniversary. There's some interesting material here, though after the first two featurettes it's starting to get a bit repetitive.

"The Sharktank Redemption" is a 24-minute spoof of the film, transplanting the story into the setting of a Hollywood talent agency, with Red (played by Morgan Freeman's son Alfonso Freeman) and Andy "doing time" as office assistants. It's mildly amusing.

Lastly, we get a stills gallery, storyboards, and a brief slideshow of 10th-anniversary poster artwork.

Final thoughts

The Shawshank Redemption has one of the most astounding come-from-behind success stories in film: after barely making a splash in theaters and receiving none of the seven Academy Awards it was nominated for, the film slowly but surely built up a following when it was released into the home video market. It's a powerful film that gets everything right, from casting to pacing, and from script to structure. This was the third time I'd seen the film, and even knowing the film inside-out I still wound up with a lump in my throat at the ending.

The Special Edition has exactly the same transfer as the earlier release, so viewers can make the decision to upgrade or not based on how much they want to see the special features. In either release, though, it's a fantastic film, and I'm happy to give a DVDTalk Collector Series rating to the Special Edition disc.

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