"Iris: A Memoir" and "Elegy for Iris," two memoirs by English critic John Bayley about his 43-year love affair with his wife, novelist Iris Murdoch, and her final struggle with Alzheimer's disease, were critically celebrated for his touching, unsentimental portrait of not only an uncommon marriage but also the mysteries of love and its endless possibilities. "Iris," the movie version of those books, struggles to match Bayley's achievement. Not that this isn't a fine cast and production, performed with astonishing intelligence and lovingly faithful to the letter and the spirit of this literary union. Yet somehow Iris remains a remote figure. This causes the film to become more about Bayley than its title character.
Nevertheless, sophisticated adult audiences, especially female, in North America and Europe should embrace a film that has such respect for the life of the mind. It is a cruel irony, though, that the author of such imaginative and philosophical novels will be remembered and at least partially defined by her final, terrible illness. It doesn't seem fair.
Director Richard Eyre, who wrote the script with Charles Wood, tracks between two time frames. We witness the devastating unhinging of a sharp mind and personality in the last few years of Iris (played with remarkable simplicity by Judi Dench) in the 1990s while her husband (Jim Broadbent in a true profile in courage) struggles to care for her.
These scenes mingle with flashbacks to happier memories of courtship and early life together in Oxford, England, during the 1950s. It's a comfortable life filled with summer swims and a shared love for books. In these sequences, Kate Winslet as the young Iris smartly captures the wit and bohemian spirit of a woman experimenting with life, taking lovers of both sexes and delving deeply into the meaning of love.
Hugh Bonneville plays John, a junior Oxford lecturer. He's younger than Iris, has a stammer and at 29 is still a virgin when they meet. But she feels strangely comfortable with him. After one fateful night, in which she catalogues her love affairs for John, who stands wincing in an emotional corner, she holds him tightly and declares, gently and sweetly, that he is her world.
Bayley wrote that his wife the writer was "a beautiful maiden who disappears into an unknown and mysterious world every now and again ... but who always comes back." The film imagines that her disease causes her to disappear into that secret world and, finally, not come back. This is a poetic yet faulty metaphor for a hideous disease that does, in fact, rob one of inner life and personality.
The catastrophe causes old angers to resurface, especially John's hurt and shame over her many lovers, who were tolerated but never fully accepted. Lying beside her in bed, he screams: "I've got you now, and I don't bloody want you! I've never known who you are, and now I don't want to!"
The filmgoer shares that puzzlement. Eyre deserves praise for a clear-eyed portrait of the couple's marriage and her disease. But Iris never comes fully into focus. Too much of the film is devoted to the older Iris, a walking shell of her former self, watching "Teletubbies" on television and unable to speak coherently. Her younger self comes across as a free spirit and libertine who is, frankly, a bit of a pain. It's never clear whether she truly means to manipulate or hurt other people; perhaps she is blithely unaware of her effect on people.
"Iris" possesses first-class production values. The details of the couple's notoriously unkempt Oxfordshire manor home, meticulously re-created by Gemma Jackson, and even Ruth Myers' costumes seem emblematic of their emotional and intellectual lives. Martin Walsh's editing keeps the flow between the time periods smooth and even beguiling, while Roger Pratt's cinematography catches the drastic shift in mood.Thanks to Stephanie Flaherty for sending me this article which appeared online on the Hollywood Reporter website on December 7, 2001.