Iris (Miramax, 2001)


"You wrote novels. Wonderful novels."
"I...wrote?"
"Such things you wrote. Special things. Secret things."

Iris is a dual portrait of two sides of novelist Iris Murdoch. We first meet the young Iris (Kate Winslet), a new writer and sexual libertine who would feel comfortable in a Somerset Maugham novel. Then we are introduced to older Iris (Judi Dench), an accomplished author and lecturer who is just beginning to show signs of Alzheimer's Disease while trying to finish her last novel, Jackson's Dilemma.

By her side all along the way is John Bayley, himself a writer and critic (and on whose memoirs the movie is based). Iris and John are as devoted as any other screen couple. Young Iris simply seems to believe that her body belongs to the world, which causes young John (Hugh Bonneville) no end of grief which he carries with him even into his days caring for his slowly slipping wife.

The two Irises are so fully realized that it is difficult to believe that they are the same person separated over forty years. The two Johns, however, are wonderfully linked, Bonneville doing a marvelous job of mimicking Jim Broadbent's (who won an Oscar for his role as older John) mannerisms.

I have no problem with the acting. My problem is with the script. There is literally no Act II. Young Iris meets and courts young John -- and suddenly we are thrust into the midst of older Iris' struggle in the early throes of Alzheimer's, attempting to get down the words of her final novel, Jackson's Dilemma, then forgetting that she ever wrote in the first place.

What happened to all the time in between? All the books? The Booker Prize for The Sea, the Sea? This is an author they're profiling; shouldn't there be a good bit of description of her literary side? I learned absolutely nothing about Iris Murdoch, the author.

I came into this film knowing nothing of the work of Iris Murdoch. I only knew of her, specifically from a scene in the film Antonia and Jane (Jane's lover, Norman, can only be aroused when he is read to from Murdoch's work. Unfortunately, Jane hates Iris Murdoch). Admittedly, this is a rather peculiar way to be introduced to an author, but it piqued my curiosity and I thought that Iris might shed some light on its eminent subject.

But by neglecting the literary side of her, the filmmakers have inadvertently made a film whose main story (the difference between lucid Iris and declining Iris) could have been about any other Alzheimer's sufferer. To be sure, the particulars of the relationships would have been markedly different but certain similarities would remain. With proper research, the story could have even been easily fictionalized.

Therefore, while I enjoyed the film as an experience, when I look back on it I am disappointed that a film as good as Iris could have been is not as complete a portrait as the title implies.

[Craig Clarke]