This review (of a 33-year-old film, and one you should really have seen already — just saying) contains plot spoilers, just so you know.
I do, of course, sometimes go to see old films at the cinema, and the NFT (or “BFI Southbank” if you want to call it by the name it likes to use of itself) is a great place to catch retrospectives and archival screenings of old films. The Shining however had something of a wider re-release recently, so I went along as I’d never seen it on the big screen, and I’m a particular fan of late-period Kubrick. Everything he did from Barry Lyndon (1975) onwards remains exceptional to my mind, including (I would argue) the posthumous A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), directed by Steven Spielberg.
Of his late films, I think this is probably the most widely known, particularly because of its iconic Jack Nicholson performance as the writer Jack Torrance going stir crazy while holed up with his family in the Overlook Hotel over winter. It would be easy to dismiss Nicholson’s work here as overly mannered, but Kubrick was never a director to restrain his actors, and he tended to guide all of them towards a kind of gurning monomaniacal over-the-top performance style, almost incantatory. It gives his films something of the quality of a trance, and the line between reality and dream (or some other fugue state) is always blurred. Where this was very much text in his last film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), it’s rather more hinted at here, though the primary clue is in that final image of the old photo showing Jack front and centre at a 1921 New Year’s Eve party in the hotel. He’s like a malign spirit haunting the place, and he’s not the only one.
There’s plenty of stuff in the film to unpick, and indeed there are entire films dedicated to doing so (like Room 237 ). Quite aside from the many levels of interpretation, what I like about the film is its sense of space. Those rides that the kid takes on his tricycle around the building remain unnerving, from the low camera angle, to the precise sound design as he moves from carpet to wood floor, to those blind corners which could reveal anything. Knowing in advance (as I did, having seen the film many years ago) that the dead girls will be around one of them hardly lessens the tension. The same sort of tension is created near the end with the snow-bound hedge maze outside, when Jack is implacably tracking his family through it while wielding an axe.
There’s lots of little stuff like that, along with the bigger enigmas, that draw the viewer in to the film world. None of it is perfectly explicable, and nor should it be, but I can imagine wanting to return to the film in another few decades to check that Jack’s still there, looking after the Overlook Hotel.
Director Stanley Kubrick; Writers Kubrick and Diane Johnson (based on the novel by Stephen King); Cinematographer John Alcott; Starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd; Length 144 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 23 February 2013.