Fine drama: the love affair that opened a new life for C.S. Lewis

Shadowlands PBS, tonight, 9-10:30 p.m., check local listings. Stars Claire Bloom and Joss Ackland. Written by William Nicholson. Directed by Norman Stone. Produced by David M. Thompson. A coproduction of the BBC and the Episcopal Radio-TV Foundation. British writer C. S. Lewis believed in a mythical ``unfound door'' that leads out of time and space into ``Shadowlands,'' the land of enchantment and wonder described in his novel ``The Chronicles of Narnia.''

A confirmed bachelor, Oxford professor C(live) S(taples) Lewis had also become a noted Christian advocate through his book ``The Screwtape Letters.'' In Magdalen College circles he was known as ``a nonplayer in the cricket game of life.''

Then in 1950 he received a fan letter about his writings from American poet Joy Gresham. They corresponded, met, became friends, then married. The love and devotion he experienced in this extraordinary affair began to convert him into a full participant in life.

Then tragedy struck in the form of a serious illness for Joy. For several years the illness went into remission and they spent what he described in his journals as the happiest years of his life. But then the illness recurred, and as he sat by the bedside of his beloved Joy, Lewis experienced the kind of emotions he had only written about before.

After she was gone, his faith was profoundly shaken. He struggled with grief and disbelief; shared his loss with Joy's sons. Finally, when he was able to rebuild a life, it was an existence made fuller by his years with Joy and the world into which she drew him.

Based on this relationship, ``Shadowlands'' is a drama that seems like a delicate and sensitive souvenir, a remembrance of the exquisite fragility of human relationships. It is a reminder that there are all kinds of love, that human beings must learn to prize the love that finds its way to their hearths.

Claire Bloom, named best actress for this performance by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, creates an indelible, unflinching portrait of a vivacious woman whose laughter runs deep. Joss Ackland turns in a skillful performance of a woebegone but lovable Lewis, who learns the agony as well as the glory of human emotion.

All too often, made-for-TV movies try a similar theme -- the slow demise of a loved one. But in almost all cases it is flawed by bathos in writing and presentation. ``Shadowlands'' is the near-perfect example of this genre. There is not one moment of artificiality, not one scene that does not ring true in this electronic treasure. It is a program to be cherished.

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