IRIS directed by Richard Eyre, written by Eyre and Charles Wood, based on John Bayley's Elegy For Iris and Iris And Her Friends, produced by Robert Fox and Scott Rudin, with Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville. 90 minutes. A BBC Films production. An Alliance Atlantis release. Opens Friday (February 15). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 76. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Audiences are unlikely to flock to a movie about someone suffering from Alzheimer's, even if it is about brilliant novelist Iris Murdoch's struggle with the disease.
But maybe, despite its devastating subject, they will come to Iris for the stunning performances by Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet (all three Oscar-nominated) and Hugh Bonneville.
The film recounts both the last years and the courting days of unlikely literary couple Murdoch and John Bayley. The young Murdoch was sexually adventurous, bisexual and supremely confident, while Bayley was sexually naive, shy and socially awkward.
Director Richard Eyre, who with Charles Wood wrote the script based on Bayley's memoirs, cuts back and forth between present and past, between Dench and Broadbent playing the elderly couple, and Winslet and Bonneville as their younger selves.
Dench is riveting as the increasingly confused writer. It's a wonderfully bare-bones turn, a performance that eschews fireworks and simply, sadly unfolds as Murdoch slowly slips away.
It's through Broadbent's flappable academic, who up until Murdoch's illness was dependent on her to keep him grounded and functioning, that we get a sense of Murdoch's personality. His almost childlike efforts at convincing their friends -- and himself -- that her spirit is alive inside the seemingly empty vessel she's become are heartbreaking.
Veterans Dench and Broadbent make their difficult roles look effortless, while Winslet and Bonneville have easier, and yet much more interesting, parts to play. The young Murdoch, who has her pick of lovers, partners or husbands, chooses Bayley -- and we crave to know why. That's the crux of this love story, and I wish more of the film had focused on their fledgling courtship.
In most ways, Murdoch takes on the traditionally male role in the relationship. She's sexually experienced and insists on her right to determine her own lifestyle; Bayley's virgin status and desire to marry for security is stereotypically female behaviour for the period. In real life, it's interesting to note, Bayley never found Murdoch pretty and at first sight thought he had a chance with her since no other man would want her.
It's a refreshing change to see a woman calling the shots. Of course, once she falls for him she's no more in control of her emotions than Bayley. That's the power of love -- its ability to bring two people to an equal, if joyously unbalanced, footing.