“Love is the only language everyone understands.”
Iris Murdoch was an acclaimed British writer and philosopher who died in 1999. During her lifetime, she wrote novels, plays, poetry, and philosophical meditations, but it is for her novels that she was most widely and popularly known. There were 26 of them, beginning with “Under the Net” in 1954. These were not your bestseller list pot-boilers, but books informed by Murdoch’s philosophical interests and densely packed with intricate plots, rich characterizations, and themes of some depth — life and death, good and evil, fantasy and reality, love and hate. The appearance of her last novel — “Jackson’s Dilemma” in 1995 — marked the beginning of the final phase of her life. It was one in which Alzheimer’s Disease increasingly tightened its inevitable grip upon her and to some extent played out in the public awareness once it became known that she continued to be nursed at home by her devoted husband (an Oxford English professor and novelist, himself), John Bayley.
Bayley has written of Iris and particularly her final years in two books — “Elegy for Iris” and “Iris and Her Friends.” These books formed the basis of a 2001 British film entitled, simply, Iris, and Miramax has now made that film available on DVD.
Iris Murdoch, the acclaimed British writer and philosopher, is stricken with Alzheimer’s in her old age and gradually begins to degenerate as her husband of 40 years, John Bayley, comforts and cares for her. The events of the first and final years of their lives together are interwoven and presented to us as the disease moves to its inevitable conclusion.
One of the things that struck me about Iris was how much it reminded me of Shadowlands in its setting (Oxford and literary life) and its themes (love and death). Of course, the details of the stories are not strictly comparable, but the feel for time and place, the presence of literary/philosophical greatness, and the sense of deep devotion between human beings all come through very strongly in both films. Where the films diverge is in their narrative approach. Shadowlands is confined to a specific stage of C.S. Lewis’s life and deals with it in a very linear fashion, whereas Iris cuts continually back and forth between Murdoch’s youth and her final years. This approach in Iris is both its strength and weakness.
There is no doubt that the constant intercutting between youth and old age is a powerful technique for contrasting where Iris has come from with where she is now. The vitality and coherence of her youth emphasizes the decline she later suffers in a way that a simple presentation of her later years alone could never do. The intercutting, however, also illustrates the strength of her relationship with John Bayley. From a beginning punctuated by questions of fidelity and commitment has developed a relationship of total devotion to each other. The result is a mixture of sadness and happiness about Iris’s final years that has more of a sense of lyricism to it than simple narrative. It’s no accident that the French title for the film is Poeme pour Iris, for that in effect is what the film is — an elegiac poem. Anyone who is content to take the film as such will find it a satisfying experience.
But I would be remiss if I did not say that there is another effect of the intercutting between youth and old age that was somewhat troubling to me. Inevitably, it causes one to wonder about all the years in between — the details of the development of Iris’s career and the progress of her relationship with John Bayley. Aside from implying a sugar-coated life, it may give the viewer a sense of frustration about not knowing more of what exactly Iris has lost due to her diminished intellectual capacity and what we have also lost because of both that and ultimately, her death.
The film’s real strength lies in four excellent acting performances. In the title role as the older and younger Iris respectively, Judi Dench and Kate Winslet deliver beautifully matched performances (with no pretense of glamour) that really make you believe that both are the same woman at different ages. It’s virtually impossible to decide whether Winslet has tailored her intonation and mannerisms to presage Dench’s Iris, or vice versa. Even their physical appearances, without any artificial aids, seem to be compatible. Dench has the harder job trying to convey the sense of loss and helplessness the aging Iris increasingly feels, and her efforts are successful indeed. Perhaps even better is Jim Broadbent’s portrayal of the older John Bayley. His affection for and devotion to Iris is convincingly real both before and after Iris is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, even to the occasional outburst of frustration that he is driven to. (For his efforts, Broadbent deservedly won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award.) At first, I was almost convinced that he was somehow portraying the young John Bayley as well, but it’s actually Hugh Bonneville who does that. The similarity in looks and speech pattern, given the age difference, is uncannily close.
Miramax’s DVD for Iris presents the film with a 1.85:1 anamorphically enhanced image. This is a transfer whose major characteristic is inconsistency. At times it looks quite sharp with accurate colours, while at others, it’s almost washed-out in appearance. Film grain is occasionally present. The image also looked dirtier than a film of such recent vintage should warrant.
The sound is a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix, available in both English and French. There’s little of distinction to mention. This is a dialogue-driven film and as such the audio is almost entirely confined to the front speakers. In only a couple of instances were the surrounds engaged. All dialogue was clearly understandable. English closed captioning is included.
The supplement package is fairly weak. A 14-minute featurette entitled “A Talent for Life: Iris” gives a fairly superficial look at the making of the film. It includes comments from all the main performers and director Richard Eyre. There is a brief introductory comment (accessed from the main menu) concerning Alzheimer’s by actor David Hyde Pierce and a short clip of the Alzheimer Association honouring the film and Jim Broadbent. Trailers for about half a dozen Miramax films are included, but surprisingly not one for Iris itself, rather just its soundtrack.
The main reason to see Iris is the quartet of fine performances that it features. These efforts work very well with the interesting way in which the story is structured, although the lack of any significant reference to Iris Murdoch’s intervening life reduces the film’s impact substantially. Miramax’s DVD release is an average effort at best. Iris is worth some of your time, particularly if you realize that it is more of a lament for Iris than a biography of her.