After a long absence from American screens, British stage director Richard Eyre, best known for his agreeably nasty The Ploughman's Lunch in 1982, makes his return with an alternately depressing and uplifting drama about Dame Iris Murdoch's descent into Alzheimer's disease and the heroic efforts of her husband, John Bayley, to care for her, despite his own advanced age. While Alzheimer's is a horrifying and tragic affliction for anyone, there is something even more horrifying when it strikes a writer, an academic or an intellectual -- someone whose entire life is absorbed by the world of the mind. In the case of Dame Iris, the disease chose someone who was all three of the above: She was probably best known for her novels or for the stage adaptation she co-wrote from her own The Severed Head or for that play's film version, but she was also a political activist and a philosopher (she studied under Wittgenstein) and taught at Oxford and the Royal Academy of Art.
She was not entirely cerebral, however. Among her apparently numerous lovers were Jean-Paul Sartre, French novelist Raymond Queneau and Nobel Prize-winning author Elias Canetti. Still, there is something cruelly ironic about someone with her talents developing Alzheimer's. It is analogous to cellist Jacqueline du Pré getting multiple sclerosis. Indeed, in its central concerns, Iris is reminiscent of the 1998 du Pré biopic Hilary and Jackie. Structurally, however, it is similar to but less adventuresome than the latter, and way less daring than Stephen Gyllenhaal's 1992 Waterland, another clear influence.
It would be unbearably bleak to show us nothing more than her decline, so Eyre intercuts scenes of the old Iris (Judi Dench) and John (Jim Broadbent) with scenes of the young Iris (Kate Winslet) and John (Hugh Bonneville) during their courtship more than forty years earlier. Of course, in some ways, this makes things even more depressing. We're constantly reminded of youth's inevitable slide from vigor and excitement to infirmity and death.
Eyre announces his intentions during the opening scenes: We first spy the young couple swimming naked, and in the underwater haze they suddenly age four decades. The combination of time frames is presented so evenly we can only tentatively consider that the "young scenes" are flashbacks in John's memory rather than otherwise unmotivated directorial manipulations. Within each of the two time frames, events run more or less chronologically. We see John and Iris meet at an Oxford dance. They fall for each other at once, but long-term commitment is easier for him than her. He's a frumpy, ill-at-ease, stammering virgin; she's socially aggressive, wildly experienced, self-assured and put together like Kate Winslet.
While she quickly becomes the center of his life, he has to accept that she's not sleeping with him yet but is banging a mustachioed Dapper Dan. In a significant gesture, however, she does allow John to be the first one to read her as-yet-unpublished first novel, opening her mind to him more fully than she does to those with whom she shares her body.
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Meanwhile, in the elder time scheme, we wince to see Iris, for the first time in her life, struggling with her manuscript: she can't remember a simple word. Rather quickly, her condition deteriorates to a level where neither she nor John can continue in denial. After she completely loses her train of thought in the middle of a TV interview, specialists confirm the worst: She will have to watch as her brain, her very sense of self, dies a little at a time. And, perhaps worse yet, John will have to watch it as well.
Eyre -- who, working from Bayley's two best-selling books of memoirs, co-wrote the film with Charles Wood, screenwriter of Help! and several other seminal Richard Lester films -- takes some minor dramatic liberties regarding the time scheme. Most noticeably, Winslet comes across as a coltish grad student, though Murdoch was in fact in her mid-thirties during her courtship with Bayley. This doesn't detract from her performance or its effect, and it's the performances that really carry the film.
Dench is wholly extraordinary in a characterization that is frequently muted, literally and necessarily. The always wonderful Broadbent (Mike Leigh favorite and veteran of Moulin Rouge and The Crying Game) is no less perfect, despite a large age difference. As Eyre drolly remarks in the press notes, "He's managed to play someone who is actually twenty years his senior with an ease that alarms him." Bonneville, who in real life doesn't resemble Broadbent all that much, manages, through a combination of makeup and acting, to be so identical to his older counterpart that I actually thought for the first few scenes that he was Broadbent in "young" makeup.
The only real problem is Winslet, and the problem is more one of appearance than of her performance. While she gives Iris the sort of energetic glow that apparently had more to do with the writer's attractiveness than her actual looks, she simply is not believable as a youthful version of Judi Dench (who actually does slightly resemble Iris). It's not a film-wrecking point, but it is the one little flaw in an otherwise perfectly tuned work.