Director Richard Eyre ("The Ploughman's Lunch") and his cowriter Charles Wood adapt British literary professor John Bayley's memoir of his wife, Dame Iris Murdoch, the author of twenty-six novels who died of Alzheimer's disease in "Iris."
Laura's Review: C
While I haven't read Bayley's memoir, it's choice is an unfortunate one for the viewer interested in Iris Murdoch. Bayley clearly resented his wife's sexual openness in her quest for goodness all his life. In her youth she's someone who married him out of pity and in old age a burden. He himself is a sainted, socially inept innocent. The movie itself is pointless.
The film begins with beautiful imagery (cinematography by Roger Pratt, "Chocolat") of the young, nude Iris (Kate Winslet, "Titanic") swimming underwater with the more restrained Bayley (Hugh Bonneville, "Mansfield Park"). Slowly this dissolves to the present where a suited Iris (Judi Dench, "Chocolat") still enjoys water play with her husband John (Jim Broadbent, "Moulin Rouge").
The elder Iris struggles to complete a novel, mulling over the spelling of the word 'puzzle,' but John makes excuses for her. Bayley, always in awe of his wife's mind, is the last to accept that there might be something wrong with it.
The film moves forward, flashing back to the young couple's romance where we learn that Bayley was a virgin while Iris had affairs with both sexes. At one point, editor Martin Walsh ("Bridget Jones's Diary") cuts from John looking through a doorway at Iris as she's unable to write to the young John peeking through a doorway at Iris having sex with someone else, equating the failure of her mind with the failure of her fidelity. Iris was always letting Bayley down, apparently.
Dame Judy Dench does give an affecting performance as a woman slowly losing herself to a horrific disease, but it's difficult to be affected when we have nothing invested in what's being lost. Kate Winslet is strong as an unconventional young woman fully confident of her own brilliance and Bonneville is also intriguing as the young Bayley, but they're never given the opportunity to portray what made them enter a marriage that lasted all their lives. Broadbent plays the older Bayley as an absent minded professor, alternately cooing and striking out at his declining wife. The legendary squalor of their home is subtly wrought by David Warren's art direction and barely noted in the script.
"Iris" is an odd title indeed for a film that barely brushes its titular subject's surface.
Robin's Review: B-
Iris Murdoch was a prolific storyteller with a string of some 26 novels to her credit. The brilliant, respected author, in her later years, began to experience periods of forgetfulness that degenerated into dementia. Her loyal, loving husband, John Bayley, moved from the shadow of her limelight to the role of Iris's caretaker as he watched his talented wife slowly and steadily lose her mind to the ravages of Alzheimer's disease in "Iris."
Young Iris, played by Kate Winslet, is a free-spirited artistic talent who has no doubt that she is destined for greatness as an author. While attending Oxford University, she meets a fellow writer, stuttering and insecure John Bayley (Hugh Bonneville), and he immediately becomes smitten with the pretty, precocious Iris. He accepts her bohemian life style and becomes her lifelong devotee.
Years later, things have not changed and the now-elderly couple continue to pursue their writing careers, with Iris (Judi Dench) the celebrity in the family. At first, Iris merely has occasional bouts with forgetfulness, unknowingly repeating herself over the little things in life. When she begins to have problems remembering how to spell even simple words, John (Jim Broadbent) becomes concerned and seeks medical help. It is obvious to Dr. Gudgeon (Kris Marshall) that Iris is in the early stages of a dementia that will prove to be Alzheimer's disease, an irreversible condition that will leave the gifted writer a helpless creature in need of constant care. The burden falls upon her doting, loving husband, who must bear the brunt of Iris's decline into her isolated world of dementia.
Director Richard Eyre, with Charles Wood, has adapted the books of John Bayley (Iris: A Memoir and Elegy for Iris) to produce a work that looks at the life of the prolific Iris Murdoch and gives insight into the heartbreakingly painful world of Alzheimer's disease. The story segues between the elder Iris and the life and loves of the young Iris (Winslet) as she single-mindedly authors her first book that she just knows will be published. She meets fellow writer John Bayley (Bonneville), a stuttering, socially befuddled student who falls for the pretty, intelligent Iris. Her flamboyant lifestyle and forthright manner attract John, but confuses him, too. Despite the personality differences between the two a love and loyalty develops nonetheless.
Three of the principles - Dench, Winslet and Broadbent - have been garnering deserved praise for their individual performances. Winslet lays the character groundwork, effectively depicting the free-minded Iris as a developing talent with great future prospects. Dame Judi, as usual, does a solid job from start to finish. She is, early on, articulate and clear as she gives a talk on the importance of the written word. The disease first strikes her in little ways as she unconsciously repeats herself, forgets how to spell words like "puzzle" and can't name the current British prime minister. The actress bares herself as the ravages of the disease take hold and she becomes increasingly withdrawn into her own world. As such, there is a reliance on facial expressions to convey her fall into simple-mindedness as the story delves into her (and John's) plight and the actress is totally effective.
Jim Broadbent, to me, steals the show as John Bayley. John both loves and is in awe of his talented wife and life-mate and he is concerned and supportive of Iris as the first signs of Alzheimer's takes hold. As her dementia increases, the emotional and physical burden on John grows. Broadbent shows, at various times, the concern, frustration, irritation, anger and, eventually, resentment, even hate, he feels as he helplessly watches the woman that he has loved for so long turn into a mere shell of her former, dynamic self. By the film's conclusion I felt a palpable sympathy for the man. It is easily one of the best supporting actor jobs of 2001. In fact, Broadbent's presence is so strong throughout the film, his could be considered a lead role. With his near-demonic performance in "Moulin Rouge" the actor shows his amazing range and ability in 2001.
The supporting cast is small but one perf is noteworthy. Hugh Bonneville, as the young John Bayley, gives a seamless portrayal. He bookends Broadbent's interpretation of Bayley, giving the younger man the personality and insecurities that are carried on nicely in the elder John.
The screenplay bounces back and forth between Iris the younger and Iris the elder. This technique works early in the film, giving us a look at the development of a confident talent and what that talent becomes as the woman and her work matures. As the disease take hold of Iris, this back and forth play with time becomes forced - except when the deluded, elder Iris remembers her youth. Techs are adequate.
"Iris" is, at times, a powerful depiction of the mental decay of a brilliant, articulate mind as the title character slips into the dark, lonely world of Alzheimer's disease. Seen through the eyes of aging John, we are also shown the ravages that the disease has on those closest to the unfortunate victim of the condition. What the film has to say about the devastation of this debilitating disease is more significant than the story of Iris's life. Fortunately, the top notch acting, especially by Broadbent, gives the near-clinical analysis of the effects of Alzheimer's a human face that strikes a chord deep inside.