Inarguably one of the Britain's most respected and gifted writers of
the latter part of the 20th Century, Dame Iris Murdoch began her career
in 1954 with the publication of her first novel and over the next four
decades crafted several award-winning works of fiction. Her last book,
The Green Knight was written when she was in the early stages of the
Alzheimer's disease that would eventually cause her death. Her husband,
the critic and author, John Bayley chronicled her decline in two books,
Elegy for Iris and Iris, a Memoir of Iris Murdoch, both of which form the
basis for the film IRIS. Audiences expecting a standard approach to film
biography will be disappointed. There's very little in the way of personal
information or anything indicating what shaped the woman. Instead, what
is on screen is a moving, delicately acted love story that chronicles the
heartbreaking decline of a woman whose life and trade were words as
she slips into a silent state of confusion. It's not always pleasant or
easy to watch, but thanks to the extraordinary talents of the cast, IRIS
Noted stage director Richard Eyre collaborated with Charles Wood
on the film's screenplay, which takes a slightly unorthodox approach to
the biopic genre, dividing the story between the early courtship of Bayley
and Murdoch (played in their youth by Hugh Bonneville and Kate Winslet)
and their last years together (embodied by Jim Broadbent and Judi Dench).
Eyre has made no secret of the appeal of the material to him; his mother
suffered with the disease and this is a small way he can pay tribute not
only to Murdoch and Bayley but also his own parents. The approach is
schematic and slightly confusing, but eventually, it pays off in unexpected
Overlooking the lack of context and character development, the
audience should savor the work of the quartet of actors in the lead roles.
Winslet physically throws herself into the part, often appearing in the
nude to demonstrate the young Iris' bohemian approach to life. She
often shocks the staid Bayley, especially when she confesses her past
and present peccadilloes. Bonneville does a masterful job of establishing
Bayley's almost obsessive love for Iris. This is a rare instance on film
where the two younger incarnations easily and seamlessly grow into
the older ones.
Broadbent is moving as the older John Bayley, a man who seemingly
can barely care for himself but who gladly accepts the role of caretaker.
What is perhaps missing from the film is the sense that life has sort of
leveled the playing field for him. During his marriage, Bayley lived and
worked as a critic in the shadow of his much more famous spouse. After
her decline, he enjoyed his moment in the sun by publishing these memoirs.
Since Iris Murdoch is played by Dame Judi Dench, one cannot quibble
with her interpretation of the part as written. Dench ranks alongside
contemporaries like Vanessa Redgrave and Maggie Smith in the top
echelon of British actresses. Having spent most of her life on the stage,
she has truly come into her own as a film actress in the last several years.
Portraying a character descending into a childlike state can be a pitfall
for some actors, but Dench takes a clear-eyed, no-nonsense approach
to the role that makes it all the more touching. Her Iris is a fierce,
proud woman who slowly turns into a needy, almost feral creature. There
are several particular moments that are especially moving. Murdoch trying
to remember how to spell the word "puzzle" and then struggling to recall
what it means. Murdoch going to a TV station for an interview and being
faced with her younger self on the monitor. Murdoch following her husband
around repeating "It's only the postman!" as if it is some sort of mantra,
triggering him to lose his temper. Watch that scene closely as Dench
conveys the terror of someone completely lost, who realizes she has
somehow upset things but doesn't know how to make it right. It's
chilling and painful and affecting all at once.
As a historical account of the life of an important writer, IRIS
has to be deemed a failure. But as a love story, it soars, thanks to
the foursome at its center.
MPAA rating: R
Running time: 90 mins.
|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.