I CAN'T remember exactly when I first saw the film The Shawshank Redemption. I remember wanting to see it, walking past the cinema on a French street, knowing nothing about it, thinking that it looked interesting.
I must have got round to it sometime after that (I know I saw it in English, not French), and I remember liking it. Loving it? No.
Too strong. But it had in it Tim Robbins, with his laconic stride and slow smile, and Morgan beforehe-became ubiquitous Freeman. It had the forbidden voiceover too, but somehow it worked.
In fact, Shawshank, 10 years after its release, is a phenomenon. Audiences, particularly American ones, who stayed away when it was first released, lapped it up on video. Over there, they talk in terms of 'religious experiences'.
There is less of that kind of talk, inevitably, in a cynically-minded Europe, although a colleague of mine unashamedly admits that he cries during Shawshank's final scene . . . every time. Nonetheless, Shawshank regularly hits Top 10 lists and has, we are reliably informed, become one of the most popular films of all time.
Maybe it is those final scenes, when Red doesn't kill himself but is instead inspired to follow his friend Andy down an unknown road, that gets people.
Red's closing words, "I hope I can make it across the border; I hope to see my friend and shake his hand; I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams; I hope", are laden with significance. Hope, decrees the film, can set you free.
It's funny how things stay with you. My brother, after only one viewing, was able to quote an entire speech from Pulp Fiction, replicating word for word the biblical text delivered by gangster Jules before he takes out his enemies. I, not blessed with the same photographic memory, have no such ability, but I have kept lines from Shawshank in my head.
I remember Red telling Andy that, "Hope is a dangerous thing. It can drive a man insane." I remember agreeing. Hope for something and it doesn't happen.
Too much hope can get you in all sorts of trouble, with your dreams dashed and reality too much to bear.
What's the point of hoping when you are trapped inside prison? What's the point in hoping when there is no place to go?
But Shawshank worked because it told people that it's okay to hope. Tim Robbins, in interviews, has pointed out that people all over the world feel enslaved, by their environment, their jobs, their relationships. Shawshank, he explained, is a story about enduring and ultimately escaping from that imprisonment.
I also remember Andy telling Red that, "Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies". A little trite, perhaps . . . the movie is not big on subtlety . . . but it resonates. Andy Dufresne patiently chipped away at the barriers of his life for 19 years. Maybe there is nothing wrong with the rest of us patiently chipping away at our own barriers, metaphysical though most of them might be.
Ultimately, the film is a feelgood movie, simply one that is deeper and slower than so much Hollywood fare, and with a more persuasive message than, say, films like Amelie or Chocolat, the French delights that charm but leave a slightly saccharine taste in the mouth. Viewers have credited it with getting them through bad marriages, divorces or illness.
On a less dramatic level, Shawshank works, to my mind at least, because it simply makes sense. It's easy enough to go under, easier still to let the days merge into each other in a kind of existence. "Most people, " said Thoreau, "lead lives of quiet desperation."
Shawshank, in contrast, advises people to "get busy livin', or get busy dyin'". It's a great line, that. The kind of line that sticks, the kind of line that says all kinds of things about trying and failing. It's not just about going on, but going on with some kind of faith in the future, which makes the 'now' that bit easier to handle. We can live or we can die. For most of us, there is a choice.
The film, of course, taps into western malaise, becoming a spiritual outlet in a world without security or the certainty of religion, where the search for happiness is a constant preoccupation. Shawshank, with its believable characters and clear redemptive ideology . . .
many have found pointed biblical references in the film, while its lasting image of Tim Robbins with his arms held wide, his head back, has been likened to Christ on the cross . . .becomes something to hold onto.
For my part, I know there are better films out there.
Films with open, confused endings, with uncertain characters, with all the negativity and lack of communication of life.
But Shawshank is warm without being cosy and, like Dufresne himself, quietly confident of its abilities to capture hearts and minds.
When it is re-released on the big screen next month, I, for one, will be there.