Iris
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 wordlessly.

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 imagination.

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.

Directed by:
Richard Eyre

Starring:
Judi Dench
Jim Broadbent
Kate Winslet
Hugh Bonneville
Samuel West
Penelope Wilton

Written by:
Richard Eyre
Charles Wood

Rated:
NR- Not Rated.
This film has not
been rated.

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