“Iris” on film
Iris Murdoch, a British (though Irish-born) author, was a firecracker. A philosopher and novelist, she wrote over 20 novels. She also had a number strong ideas, as well as a number of lovers – male and female.
“Iris” as a film is based off her husband John Bayley’s book “Elegy for Iris,” about his life with his infamous wife. I recall reading the book a few years back, yet don’t remember much about it other than a sweetness of the way Bayley describes his powerful and complicated wife.
However, the film is another matter.
There are two Irises – the Iris of the past, and the Iris of the present day.
In the present day, Iris and her husband John Bayley live a semi-normal life. While she lectures and speaks, they also grocery shop and hang out at a pub. They swim and share ideas. Sadly, Iris begins to show signs of Alzheimer’s – saying things twice, and at times she “seems puzzled.” During a TV interview, she becomes confused and loses her train of thought.
From there, it’s all downhill as the once-eloquent writer and speaker becomes troubled by words and the world. Doctors are consulted, tests are run, and indeed – it’s Alzheimer’s. With a plan to keep talking and writing so the words keep coming, she and John try to keep her mind sharp, but it’s no use. When her newest book arrives via a mailman, she doesn’t even know what it is. Iris deteriorates into her illness completely and becomes completely reliant on John.
In the past, we see how their relationship began – namely, awkwardly. John Bayley is an awkward scholar, while Iris is a cha-cha dancing woman of many friends and strong ideas. Literally, at a party scene, she’s the one in red among a sea of black suits and muted tones. Her large circle of friends and lovers intimidates John at first, but after a while he becomes the one person Iris takes into her confidence and lets read her first novel. She confides in him, and she awakens him to a happier, more full kind of life.
Dame Judi Dench and Kate Winslet face up to the daunting task of sharing the role of Ms. Murdoch — Dench in the present day and Winslet in memories. As the movie moves back and forth in time, we see the development of Iris and John’s relationship, as well as how these two different people made it through the world together.
Kate Winslet is always lovely, especially when she’s allowed to be a vivid and strong woman. Jim Broadbent won his Oscar for his flawless performance as Bayley, a man coming to terms with his wife’s deterioration even as he’s experiencing his own. However, it’s Dench who is the real star of the show. As Iris descends into her own mind’s madness, she’s heartbreaking. It’s a breathtaking performance.
It’s a smart and beautifully-done film. If you’re interested in authors lives, this is definitely something to see.