Director: Richard Eyre. Cast: Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet, Hugh Bonneville, Penelope Wilton, Samuel West. Screenplay: Richard Eyre and Charles Wood (based on the books Iris: A Memoir and Elegy for Iris by John Bayley).

Iris, in a way, is not one but two movies about Alzheimer's disease. In one of them, the pain of watching a loved one disapper beneath her symptoms, watching her become her symptoms, is rendered in exquisite, weirdly hypnotic detail by a formidable cast and a smart script. In the second, more problematic instance, the film undergoes an Alzheimer's experience itself, abandoning the richness, specificity, and deliberate progress of its first hour for a concluding 30 minutes that feels distant and unformed. It is not impossible that this second aspect of Iris is any less intentional than the first, but it is equally certain that, even if director Richard Eyre and co-writer Charles Wood meant for Iris to mirror its subject's slow fade, the device is deflating instead of revealing. We don't know enough about Iris Murdoch before she vanishes, a malady which she couldn't prevent but which her storytellers should have.

Obviously, it has become rote to praise Judi Dench as the great British actress of our era, except in those circles where "great" and "British" are held to be synonymous with each other. She earns the acclaim in the first long stretch of Iris, which gutsily refuses to be a maudlin account of a genius' death. The first Iris we meet is Judi's, the septuagenarian philosopher and Booker Prize-winning novelist being invited (in Eleanor Bron's cameo as a dean) to speak before an academic audience. Quickly, Eyre cuts to a scene of same character, same college, earlier era: Kate Winslet plays the student Iris Murdoch in a forceful, mature variation on her headstrong-lady routine. Accompanying Iris in both the past and present time-frames is John Bayley, a maladroit acquaintance of her college years who later became her colleague, husband, and biographer. If, indeed, the film Iris sometimes feels guilty of extolling its heroine without telling us much about her gifts, the blame may fall on its use of Bayley's memoirs as source material. Throughout the movie, we are reminded of his bottomless, self-effacing devotion to his more famous wife, but cherishment this pronounced is likely more enabling for its recipient than it is illuminating to third-party outsiders like ourselves.

All the same, whatever Iris' elisions, Eyre's choreography of the four lead performances is exemplary. Winslet and Dench, as well as Hugh Bonneville and Jim Broadbent in the Bayley role, are even more persuasive as time-stopped versions of the same character than are most other actors who single-handedly play one character over time. In their physical movements, their vocal inflections, and most specifically their respective brands of restless insight and worshipful obedience, this cast prevents the flashback/flash-forward structure from being an arbitrary or interruptive device. The match-ups of the performances become even more poignant as Dench's aggravated lurches into blankness stand in increasing contrast to Winslet's brazen knowingness. But this structure of Iris is already the film's most controversial aspect, with some critics accusing the film of unnecessary and mystifying formal business. Initially, the structure does seem dubious, as though Eyre is preparing a morbid and banal comparison between youthful possibility and senescent diminishment. But the actors and, more crucially, the screenwriters and editors have grander preoccupations, at least during the hour when Iris is running on course.

For one thing, the miraculous precision with which Dench manages to telegraph, even in her character's most strained moments, a terrible awareness of her own decline is an enrichment to the film's characterization. Iris is too smart not to realize what is happening; she begs questions of her husband about how anyone would know if they were going mad, "especially those of us who live inside our minds anyway," and she seems fully aware that her own need to ask these questions is an oblique proof of their relevance. Later, as a woman who can no longer presume any confidence in her thoughts, Iris is perturbed when Bayley and others insist she is healthy. Only the unbuffered clinical pronouncement that she is deeply ill suits her desperate need for verification, and Dench plays the scene with civil, sincere gratitude. She seeks clarity, not comfort, from her doctors, and she retains a philosopher's need for truth. (In this way, her story differs from that of Wit's dying professor, whose experience as a patient leads her to second-guess her academic sternness; for Iris, stern thought is her only remaining tool.)

These are worthy insights and, as realized by a succinctly articulate actress like Dench, they approximate the simply stated verities of Iris Murdoch's own philosophy. Meanwhile, the film's montage furnishes the narrative with further nuance. The movie's most fascinating scene plays out as a cross-cut between the young Bayley's discovery that Iris is sexually unfaithful and the elder man's realization that his wife is losing her mind. When Bonneville opens the door to Winslet's bedroom, what we see is Dench, hunched in frustration at her writing desk. The disjunction is hardly capricious: what Iris shows us is that the two events are disturbingly compatible: Bayley feels betrayed by Iris, no less so when she cannot think or write than when she took a lover in her youth.

This note of selfishness is exactly the leavening that Broadbent's role and performance require, since both tend to slide a little uncomfortably into grandiloquent grief and squishy Absent-Minded Professor stuff. It is a strange irony that the film's most variable performance is the one that has so far reaped the majority of awards attention. Regardless, through Broadbent and occasionally despite him, the film bravely presses the same interrogations that much of Murdoch's writing did: to what extent do all individuals force their romantic partners to satisfy private needs? If you explicitly fall in love with someone because she is brighter and tougher than you, what happens to your love when she can no longer be bright or tough?

So long as Iris keeps its mind on the specific psychologies of these characters, and while it showcases a willingness to play around with conventional biographical form, the payoffs are grand. Somewhere after the middle of the picture, however, the creative controllers seem to lose their nerve. Winslet and Bonneville's scenes grow fewer and further between, and their content hinges increasingly on standard "Do you love me or don't you?" disputes—no longer a philosophical inquiry, just a melodramatic ultimatum. Worse, Dench has entered such a full state of mental infancy by the one-hour mark that the last third of Iris is built around a necessarily monotonous performance. Neither of the film's two solutions to this dilemma—more extreme indulgences of Broadbent's grief and a smattering of audience-baiting predicaments (Iris goes missing and wanders into traffic)—constitute worthy responses.

Durable British character actors like Penelope Wilton and Samuel West pop in, but their characters remain so hazily peripheral that they don't add much. And Roger Pratt's cinematography shows the same dual character as it did in The End of the Affair: when the plot's in order, the ethereal lighting seems appropriately delicate, but when the narrative grows mawkish, so too are the images. Again, it is in the nature of Alzheimer's disease to follow this path: idiosyncratic characters become spiritually empty and the complexities of life and thought are mortgaged to an implacable devastation within the brain. One of the graces of art, however, should be its ability to render human behavior without the restraint of human frailty. When Iris catches its main character's disease, our opportunities for edification are needlessly but summarily forfeited. Grade: B–

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Actress: Judi Dench
Best Supporting Actress: Kate Winslet
Best Supporting Actor: Jim Broadbent

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Actress (Drama): Judi Dench
Best Supporting Actress: Kate Winslet
Best Supporting Actor: Jim Broadbent

Other Awards:
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Supporting Actress (Winslet); Best Supporting Actor (Broadbent; also cited for Moulin Rouge!)
National Board of Review: Best Supporting Actor (Broadbent; also cited for Moulin Rouge!)

Permalink Home 2001 ABC Blog E-Mail