Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Iris is a thought-provoking true story of the kind that twenty years ago was
relegated to the realm of Television movie - the medical kind of story known as 'disease of
the week.' Presented as a prestige picture, this beautifully-acted account of
one woman's slow death is a serious study of human relationships, and works beautifully to
let us contemplate our own journey's end. But it's also as carefully constucted
to win awards as something like Dark Victory was sixty years ago.
Dame Iris Murdoch (Judi Dench), reknowned novelist who writes about love,
happiness, and being good, is diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and her mental capacity
rapidly deteriorates. Her faithful husband John Bayley (Jim Broadbent) responds with understanding
and kindness, but the tragedy of such a vibrant and expressive woman reduced to addled inactivity
is a terrible blow. In flashbacks, a younger Iris (Kate Winslet) meets the younger John Bayley
(Hugh Bonneville) and impresses him with her wild and free ways.
With a quartet of powerhouse actors, Iris succeeds best at 'ordinary' scenes, especially the
day-to-day downward spiral of Iris Murdoch's condition. She's an eloquent and articulate thinker
accustomed to swinging the world by its tail, and Judi Dench's interpretation of her as silent,
uncomprehending, and infantile is moving in the extreme.
The 'women's weepy' template for this kind of show stresses emotional scenes, and bravura acting opportunities.
But Iris's dementia doesn't cue any great soliloquies, and when her behavior becomes childish,
no cute moments or humor are in store. We're used to seeing mental debilitation presented as
humorous (Rain Man) and indicative of some sort of anointed state of being (Johnny Belinda) in movies. Iris
doesn't entertain in this fashion. I really expected the time to come when the semi-catatonic woman
would come out of her cloud of illness for a few minutes of shining clarity, before nobly succumbing.
This old Bette Davis trick would have provided a killer opportunity for the couple to declare their
love, say profound things etc. As it happens, Iris does say 'I love you' after their traffic accident, but it's hard to
tell how lucid she is when she does it.
Iris is a true story in which the filmmakers have chosen not to romanticize mental collapse.
Poor John Bayley is stuck realizing his Iris is already gone, and that he's become the caretaker
of a body inhabited by a stranger living in another world. There's actually not much to exploit:
they're well enough off not to have money worries, and Iris' only physical crisis is when she
wanders off on her own, or suddenly decides to exit a moving car. Meanwhile, other relatives have their
own illnesses to worry about. And John is himself an elderly
man who is not entirely clear-headed at all times. The world doesn't stop for her.
The flashback structure gives us a an interesting contrast of Young and Old heroines to contemplate, and
works some commercial sex into the film. Since John Bayley is the author of the piece, it's nice to
see him characterize himself as a mentally sharp but introverted bookworm sort of fellow, complete
stammer. We are shown a young Iris Murdoch who is far from idealized. She's ambitious, headstrong,
and thoroughly self-confident, jealously guarding her books and fiercely pursuing her sex life with
a number of men - students, married men, and John. But she loves John and settles down with him,
while continuing her literary exploration of life's values and virtues.
Two thoughts come to mind: Iris would seem to be a softened portrait of a very dominant woman, accustomed
to getting her way on every issue, and her relationship with John functions initially because he's appropriately
adoring and compliant. This is good because it demonstrates that Iris is not perfect. Her
illness puts John in a dominant position he never wanted. We get the impression that she never
allowed him the opportunity to make a decision on his own, and now he must somehow take charge. We
know he's not up to it, when the house becomes a health hazard - John's not accustomed to taking
care of himself.
Secondly, the very commercial Miramax company probably greenlit the movie because it had sex to go
along with the Alzheimer's story. The young Iris Murdoch has a few
moments to talk about her love of exacting word usage, and gets off a few literate zingers, but we mostly
see her expressing herself through sex. She's the epitome of liberation in that her free sex life is
almost completely selfish, and we get to see a lot of it. Female nudity has become almost extinct in
contemporary mainstream movies, but Iris has more than its share. It's true that Kate Winslet's
pink fleshy body contrasts dramatically with Judi Dench's elderly one, and there is an initial blast
of realization that every sexy young thing contains one's grandmother. But the young Iris' nudity
is used also to express her willful sexuality, so we get a visual but rather thin representation of
her philosophies on life and sex and the exacting use of the English language. Sounds like it's time
to track down one of the real Iris Murdoch's books.
Iris the movie nails perfectly the paired actors problem. The young and old versions of
characters are remarkable look- and act-alikes. Hugh Bonneville plays the awkward young Bayley
with care and dignity, making us realize that some of the elderly Bayley's tics and idiosyncracies
were already there
when he was a teenager. The actors who play Maurice old and young are father and son, which is
almost a relief considering the resemblance.
Judi Dench and Kate Winslet do bookend the Iris character nicely. We see young Iris' glazed look
when Bayley brings up the issue of lesbianism, and we can tell that she possesses his heart and
soul, but she may never really open up to him. We see a couple of snippets of the vital older Iris
making speeches, but when we first interact with her, she's already noticing the effects of
Alzheimer's in the form of work difficulties and irrational speech patterns. Again, we have to
take the profundity of the woman on faith (cue: Read a Book, Glenn) because the movie restricts
itself to the more obvious contrasts of youth and age, babyfat and wrinkles, engagement and isolation.
Iris is very useful in contemplating the aging process and is a good humanistic film. Its
main hint would seem to be to cultivate decent personal relationships, so that you might be lucky
enough to avoid facing the end alone.
The most impressive moment in Iris for Savant was a glimpse early on of Eleanor Bron, aged and
gray-haired. Perhaps UK viewers have been watching her on TV for decades, mellowing gracefully, but
I haven't seen
her since the days of Bedazzled, Alfie, and Help! We're used to watching our
movie favorites age instantaneously; seeing someone like Joan Crawford age on screen has no effect
on us. But I first saw the sublimely beautiful Bron as a teenager, when one thinks that life's
limits are an abstraction. Seeing Eleanor Bron instantly become old, forced the
realization that my personal clock has been ticking away right along with hers.
Miramax's DVD of Iris is as handsomely transferred and appointed as any new film on DVD. The
docu plays like an extended featurette and has altogether too many film clips burying its interview
material. The other extras are Alzheimer's awareness clips, including the film receiving a special
prize at an awards ceremony.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Featurette, Alzheimer's awareness extras, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 25, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2002 Glenn Erickson
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