ANTHONY HOPKINS and Debra Winger have been busy of late. Just a few weeks ago, Hopkins made a touching impression with his portrayal of an emotionally repressed butler in ``The Remains of the Day,'' which remains a solid success at the box office. Winger's virtuosic turn as a mentally unstable shop-worker in ``A Dangerous Woman'' had its premiere even more recently.
And now, with those movies still fresh on neighborhood screens, the two gifted stars have joined forces in what amounts to an instant encore: ``Shadowlands,'' based on the real-life experiences of C.S. Lewis, the celebrated British author, and Joy Gresham, his American wife.
Part of the new film's appeal lies in the rightness of its casting. Hopkins is a specialist in the sort of internalized character-building demanded by the self-controlled intellectual he plays here, and Winger is an expert at playing women who are not conventionally glamourous - in pictures like ``Legal Eagles'' and her current ``Dangerous Woman'' melodrama - despite the charm and beauty that are also part of her professional arsenal.
What's most important about ``Shadowlands,'' though, is its thoughtful approach to thought-provoking issues. Lewis is most famous to book-lovers for ``The Chronicles of Narnia,'' a series of seven fantasy novels aimed at young readers. But he was a classicist and Anglican theologian as well as a spinner of imaginative yarns, and even his most popular fiction - from the ``Narnia'' volumes to the freewheeling science-fiction trilogy he wrote during the World World II era - is full of religious imagery and symbolism.
While he led a comfortable life in many ways, as an Oxford professor and celebrated lecturer, certain aspects of Lewis's life presented strong challenges to his deeply Christian faith. The greatest challenges of all appear to have grown from his relationship with Gresham, a New York poet who became friendly with Lewis at about the time her marriage to an alcoholic screenwriter was breaking down.
``Shadowlands'' chronicles the years Lewis and Gresham spent together. It shows Gresham seeking Lewis out in order to pay her respects to his talent, then becoming his friend, and later marrying him in order to become a British citizen and stay in England with her young son.
Genuine love soon blossoms between them, turning their relationship from a marriage of convenience into a true and heartfelt union - which they consecrate with a second wedding ceremony, this time before a minister - but not before Gresham is diagnosed with a grave illness that throws a shadow over their prospects for happiness.
Her death is a horrible blow to Lewis, and even close friends wonder how he can sustain his belief in the ultimate goodness of the world and the rightness of God's plan. Yet it is precisely his religious faith that helps Lewis weather this storm and emerge with his trust unscathed.
This doesn't mean he sustains his good spirits by invoking rote pieties; indeed, when colleagues try to boost his morale with religious cliches, he replies with a glare or a shout of protest.
What is happening at these moments is not a weakening, however, but a deepening and strengthening of his conviction. At one point, an upturn in Gresham's condition prompts a friend to congratulate Lewis for having caught God's attention with his prayers, and Lewis replies in a way his companion hardly expected: ``That's not why I pray.... I pray because I can't help myself.... I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God, it changes me.''
Written by William Nicholson from his respected Broadway play, ``Shadowlands'' is the story of Lewis's changes - from a conventionally educated man who thinks he has all the intellectual and spiritual answers, to a humble and questing individual who has discovered that growth must be an ongoing process with no humanly discernible end.
It's not a consistently successful film, lapsing into formulas and sentimentality at times. But it offers much food for thought, and demonstrates once again that worthwhile subjects are not beyond Hollywood's interest, no matter what some of today's more cynical critics like to claim.
``Shadowlands'' was directed by Richard Attenborough, who has a fondness for movies about real people, and a weakness for tackling lofty projects - from the popular ``Gandhi'' to the recent ``Chaplin,'' among others - that far exceed his limited filmmaking skills.
``Shadowlands'' is a happy exception to his record of ambitious failures, capturing the richness of its characters and events with refreshing gracefulness and professionalism. Credit goes largely to the fine cast, including not only the stars but such able supporting players as Edward Hardwicke and young Joseph Mazzello, who play Lewis's brother and Gresham's son, respectively.
Other key contributions come from Roger Pratt, who did the delicate cinematography, and Stuart Craig, who designed the handsome production. George Fenton composed the effective (if overused) music.
* ``Shadowlands'' has a PG rating. It contains scenes of illness and suffering.