review by Gianni Truzzi, 14 December 2001
Imagine the personal ad:
awkward, pudgy young Oxford professor of English literature with
speech impediment wishes to meet lively and brilliant sex kitten for
bike rides, swimming and exchange of manuscripts. If such a pairing
seems unlikely, it makes the true-life romance and lifelong pairing
of John Bayley and acclaimed literary novelist Iris Murdoch all the
more astounding. Watching
their story in the new film Iris, one understands afresh
Murdoch's quip, "Writing is like getting married. One should
never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck."
Based largely on Bayley's memoir, Elegy
for Iris, Judi Dench plays Murdoch in the last five years of her
life, a celebrated grand dame of letters struggling to complete her
twenty-seventh novel as the fog of Alzheimer's descends. It's a grim
fate for a woman whose entire life has been spent with words, from
proclaiming the gospel of precise expression on television
interviews to complaining in the grocery about the misuse of
language on canned vegetables. "Without words, how does one
think?" asks Kate Winslet in flashback as the young Iris, a vivacious, scandalously indiscreet, Oxford scholar. It seems
all the more tragic when, in her seventies, the words flee from her,
leaving her helpless.
Despite Murdoch's literary stature
(and Dench's imposing presence), it's Bayley who is the more curious
and compelling figure. Anyone can -- and does, it seems -- fall for
vibrant young Iris (even easier when she's Winslet), but what does
she see in him? He is a plain man, stammering and proper.
When Iris visits him in his rooms, he protests that he's not
supposed to have young women there. When she kisses his wrist, he
brings up marriage. Even in his dotage when the grocery clerk offers
him premium points, he asks, "Are we entitled?" Sure, he's
sweet, gentle and gallant, but since when has that been enough to
win a wild woman's heart?
Hugh Bonneville and Jim Broadbent,
who play (respectively) the younger and older man, are so unified in
their masterful performances that one has to double-take the credits
to confirm that the part was played by two actors. Jointly, they
convey the quality that drew Murdoch to him, a quiet but genuine
intelligence that could match her own frantic genius. Bayley was
himself an admired, if less revered novelist, and chaired the
committee for the Booker prize. With him, she could think, even
Winslet has now had ample
opportunity to demonstrate in her post-Titanic roles that she
can act, once given a decent script (like Quills). Here, she
displays a rascally magnetism, with a deeply concealed inner life.
Bonneville asks her, a little too juicily, if she also sleeps
with women, and Winslet's silence is a rich feast for the
Murdoch's emphasis on the weight of
words makes a reviewer consider his own. Iris commands
superlatives; the film is important, powerful, absorbing. Primary
screenwriter Charles Wood (best know for his adaptations of the
Sharpe novels for the BBC) shows he is worthy of Murdoch's demanding
precision, the way he employs slim dialogue to exacting efficiency.
Yet what Iris is not -- like the real Murdoch, some might say
-- is enjoyable.
Nor is it completely truthful. I
would be loath to dispense with Winslet's performance, but to be
accurate, she is nearly ten years too young. Murdoch was 35 when she
met Bayley, a 29-year-old virgin, at Oxford. She had already worked
as assistant principal at Treasury, and then for the UN Relief and
Rehabilitation Administration, joined and abandoned the Communist
Party. The film also leaves you with the impression that, once
Murdoch decided Bayley was a worthy suitor, she committed herself to
him faithfully. Alas, she did not, continuing to have affairs after
they were married.
By devoting so much screen time to
her declining years, the film becomes less about Murdoch's
brilliance than the disease that took it. Watching Iris's growing
non-sequiteurs ("When are we leaving?" becomes as
torturous as Marathon Man's "Is it safe?"),
and Bayley's loving patience only underscores how Alzheimer's
is a thoroughly hopeless ailment. The literary couple who devoted
themselves to writing (her at a desk, him with the typewriter
balanced on his knees) never owned a television until Murdoch's
final months -- so she could watch Teletubbies.
But ultimately, the film is about
love and, as hard as some of it can be to watch, the fact that it
deals with the subject without much varnish is its saving grace.
Murdoch was right, her luck was unbelievably good, and, fortunately
for her, she had the good sense to recognize it when it came.
NR- Not Rated.
This film has not