C.S. Lewis has yet to receive the mainstream biopic treatment, save for a few TV movies. Arguably the most famous one, Shadowlands, was a BBC movie more than 35 years ago, starring Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom. Director Norman Stone, who helmed that movie along with a handful of others about Lewis’ expansive series, The Chronicles of Narnia, has made perhaps the closest thing we’ll get for sometime. The Most Reluctant Convert: The Untold Story of C.S. Lewis isn’t a biopic in the truest sense of the term. Wisely, however, it chooses to give an in-depth look at Lewis’ formidable years as an Oxford student grappling with believing in God.
Lewis once called himself “the most reluctant convert;” he was referencing his conversion from atheism to Christianity, a battle he engaged with himself that lasted well-into being a university student. Stone’s latest work — based on the Fellowship of Performing Arts’ stageplay of the same name — follows the elder Lewis (played by Max McLean, who reprises his role from the stage), who walks us through his younger years as an unseen presence.
The framework confusingly sets up a movie about Lewis being shot, with McLean stepping into character. He walks us through the bustling city of England, speaking directly to we, the viewers. We watch his younger self — played by newcomer Eddie Ray Martin as a child and Nicholas Ralph as a twentysomething — grow up in a single-parent household with a strict prosecutor father. Unlike most of his friends and their families, Lewis rejected the idea of God from a young age, engulfing his mind in philosophy written by atheists before such an idea was popular. His near-death experience as a soldier in World War I didn’t seem to phase him, although it continued his hunger for reading on the subject.
Then something changes. His peers at Oxford start to convince him otherwise, one of whom the legendary J.R.R. Tolkien (Tom Glenister).
I would love to dive deeper into the conversations had by the collegiate Lewis and Tolkien, or even name a scene or two with him as a boy that left an impact. However, The Most Reluctant Convert isn’t really about articulating Lewis’ early years. Less a film and more an intellectual exercise, this is a 75-minute monologue with maybe a dozen or so instances where McLean shuts up and lets the characters converse. But even when McLean (sometimes mercifully) stops talking, he can’t go more than a minute without interrupting with another lengthy diatribe that tells us what happens as oppose to showing us. Your attention span is bound to wan. The actual dialog couldn’t have taken up more than maybe 12 pages.
This renders the dapper presences of Ralph, Glenister, and the rest of the cast as mere decorations in an attractive but unmoving work of intellectual acrobatics. Released in limited theatrical engagement, a “making of” mini-documentary precedes the movie. It’s about 20 minutes in length and walks us through a handful of scenes while the actors and Stone provide context on the shoot, which was compounded by the pandemic.
With this behind the scenes glimpse and the repeated interruptions, Stone and McLean do everything they possibly can not to get you invested in what’s happening despite the eloquence of the monologues.
That’s not to say McLean himself isn’t good. He’s wryly funny at times, and his musings are liable to provide any viewer with more contemplation than your average theater experience. It’s a matter of how long you’re going to stay dialed into what he’s saying, however. He bloviates at times for an upwards of five minutes straight. It’s difficult to keep pace with the plethora of grand statements he makes.
The Most Reluctant Convert: The Untold Story of C.S. Lewis would’ve been a better read than a theatrical experience. I’m not sure the stage would’ve made a great deal of difference. There’s so much philosophy and theology embedded in this project that trying to juggle the many revelations along with the active dramatization of C.S. Lewis’ life that any dramatic energy is impossible to sustain. This might be a first for me to write, but film was not the appropriate route for this particular approach.
NOTE: The Most Reluctant Convert: The Untold Story of C.S. Lewis is now playing in select theaters during a limited theatrical run with a VOD/DVD release presumably to follow.
Starring: Max McLean, Nicholas Ralph, Tom Glenister, Eddie Ray Martin, Richard Harrington, and Amy Alexander. Directed by: Norman Stone.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!