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2001 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 91 min. / Street Date August 20 / $29.99
Starring Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet, Hugh Bonneville, Penelope Wilton, Eleanor Bron
Cinematography Roger Pratt
Production Designer Gemma Jackson
Film Editor Martin Walsh
Original Music James Horner
Written by Richard Eyre & Charles Wood, based on Iris: A Memoir and Elegy for Iris by John Bayley
Produced by Guy East, Robert Fox, Tom Hedley, Anthony Minghella, Sydney Pollack, Scott Rudin, David M. Thompson, Harvey Weinstein
Directed by Richard Eyre

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 with 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, Iris rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Featurette, Alzheimer's awareness extras, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 25, 2002

A note on Eleanor Bron from reader Neil Woollacott, 8/31/02:

Hi Glenn, Long time no speak - although I have always to thank you for your reviews, they are of invaluable assistance in purchasing Region 1 DVDs which can be a disadvantage from this distance.

Indeed, the highlight of Iris for me was seeing Eleanor Bron again on the screen. She was always a favorite, especially in Two for the Road - glorious as William Daniels' boorish and overbearing wife. Just thought I'd mention that although her screen work has been rare over the past two decades, she has been active on stage in the U.K., often at the National Theatre. I saw her some years ago in London in a production of The Duchess of Malfi with Ian McKellan (the marvellous Sheila Hancock and Roy Kinnear were also in the cast), and her performance was extraordinary. Although her movie roles where principally comedic, she matured into an actress of great range and command and a wonderful tragedienne, making it an even greater pity that she has confined her talent to the stage of late.

Hope you are well - keep the column flying! Best regards, Neil Woollacott

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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