directed by Richard Eyre
(Miramax, 2001)

For novelist Iris Murdoch, a life lived in the mind's interior is a life lived in the company of words, of ideas, of the spark of life itself.

She has a lusty young life outside the mind, too, but it is that interior life that powers her through a tremendously successful career as one of England's premier novelists of the 20th century.

And then, word by word, it begins to slip. Just a bit. And she wonders: Am I tired? What have I just said? The thread of conversations begins to fray, and with it a life of words paces toward a life of outward silence.

What is going on inside? Iris' devoted husband, John Bayley, cannot tell. Her old friends are unrecognized, her former lovers gazed upon without a second thought.

And Iris, Richard Eyre's film, follows quietly and without flash as Iris, piece by piece, slips away into Alzheimer's disease. Based upon two books by Bayley, Iris: A Memoir and Elegy for Iris, the 90-minute film makes no false moves in its spare and unflinching look at the transition from aspiring writer to celebrated author to ...

What is Iris at the end? Who is she? Without words, she has no memory. With no memory, her self is locked away. And for John and the friends of Iris -- a writer of novels who lived often in the mind, in the twists of language and in the secret study of the self -- it is a pain that sometimes cannot be borne.

Judi Dench and Kate Winslet share the role of Iris at the end and the beginning of her life, and the transition between the two is seamless. Dench, especially, with more than a passing physical resemblance to Iris, shows with the tremble of a hand or the catch of her breath the fear -- and the resolve -- of someone looking into blackness.

The great Jim Broadbent and Hugh Bonneville share John's role, and their performances are, in all ways, as central to the success of Iris as those of Dench and Winslet. John, by far the more naive of the couple, must undergo a transformation early in their relationship to keep up with Iris as she hurtles through life, and he must undergo a change just as powerful at the end to become her keeper in a whole new sense. He has seen it all in her life -- her secret lovers when she was younger, her descent into a life that is absolutely closed to him at the end.

"There is only one freedom of any importance whatsoever," Iris says at one point, "that of the mind." To watch Dench as she loses that freedom, sometimes piece by infinitesimal piece, other times in huge leaps of loss, is to watch a study in subtlety and in skill.

Iris as a whole is totally unsentimental, much like its namesake. John is not an uncomplaining caretaker, and neither he nor Iris is spared the humiliations that can come with Alzheimer's.

Iris passes back and forth between the "young" Iris and John and the older couple, with incidents decades apart paralleling each other and with a palpable knowledge of the sacrifices made in love. "Keep tight hold of me," laughs a young Iris as she catapults on bicycle down a country lane, "and it'll be all right!"

It wasn't all right in the end. But, in its honesty, the film returns a kind of dignity to John and Iris that a wasting disease stole away.

[ by Jen Kopf ]
Rambles: 22 October 2002

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