Mugged at the 1995 Oscars by Forrest Gump, this enduringly powerful prison drama promotes the unquenchable human spirit with an intelligence that the gooey Gump readily sacrificed. Despite the film's modest performance at the box office on its first release, Frank Darabont made a major splash with his assured directorial debut.
Adapted by the director himself from a Stephen King short story - one that appeared in the same 'Different Seasons' collection that spawned the films Stand By Me and Apt Pupil - the plot has Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne, a man arriving in prison in 1946 on a double life sentence for the murder of his wife and her lover. Andy is an apparently decent man with a preternaturally calm disposition, who is quietly insistent about his own innocence.
He befriends Red (Freeman), a veteran of the penal system, and their growing friendship over 20 years forms the backbone of the film - and provides a narrative pay-off as satisfying as it is heart-warming. Using a voiceover narration, much of which is taken verbatim from King's story, the film's great triumph is its sincerity, and even those moments that might have felt mawkish - the suicide of the old lag, for example, who fails to adjust to life on the outside - achieve the dignity of genuine tragedy.
At nearly two and a half hours in length, it's a film with plenty of time on its hands yet, thanks to engagingly warm performances by Robbins and Freeman, it very rarely drags. Robbins in particular locates a deep-seated humanity in his enigmatic banker (who unexpectedly benefits from his accounting skills), while the issues that Darabont is concerned with - faith, friendship, patience and hope - are woven seamlessly into the fabric of the story.
The director returned to Stephen King for his belated follow-up, The Green Mile, which failed to live up to the promise of his debut, replacing its warmth and subtlety with sheer bulk. Here though Darabont achieves that rarest of goals and creates a film that not only stands up to repeated viewings but which, for its legion of dedicated fans, approaches the power and significance of on-screen therapy.