April 2, 2002 -- "Iris" is a heartbreaking tale of the tragic effect of Alzheimer's disease on one of the great minds of the 20th century, Iris Murdoch. It is also a celebration of her life and the celebrated marriage of Murdoch and fellow writer John Bayley.
Based on Bayley's book, "Iris: A Memoir and Elegy for Iris," it tells the story of the couple's romance and long life together, mainly through flashbacks. The story is told in dual, parallel storylines. One storyline tells the tale of the young John and Iris and the other storyline is many years later, near the end of their lifetime journey together. The timeline constantly shifts back and forth through the whole film. At times, the earlier storyline is used to set up the later one, at other times, it is used to illustrate memories of either Iris or John.
Kate Winslet of "Quills" is the young Iris, while Judi Dench of "Chocolat" plays the older Iris. Hugh Bonneville of "Notting Hill" plays the young John Bayley, while Jim Broadbent of "Moulin Rouge" plays the older John Bayley. There is an uncanny resemblence between Bonneville and Broadbent. The story dares to go into some dark parts of Bayley's mind. Old resentments are stirred up when Bayley remembers the way he was tormented by the affairs Iris had with other men when she was young. He seemed to be both very proud of his wife, and intimidated by her. He was proud to stand in the shadow of her great intellect, but perhaps also a little jealous. Later, he is shown as a man barely hanging on, barely able to cope with his wife's terrible disease. Without her, he seems lost. Despite all that, there is a deep love between the two that seems to transcend everything.
The character development in the film is rich and multi-layered. We see deep into the relationship of John and Iris. Their insecurities and vulnerabilities are laid bare. It is terribly sad when Iris starts losing her memory. At one point John tries to read to Iris from a book she wrote. Iris cannot even understand the words she herself had written not so long before. As bad as it was for her, knowing she would lose the battle to keep her own mind, it was worse for John. Long after she had lost the power to understand how far she was declining, John could remember how brilliant she once had been.
Structurally, this is a cumbersome, unbalanced film, but it is brilliantly acted. Broadbent won an Academy Award for his fine performance. Seeing him in this film and in "Moulin Rouge" one gets an idea of Broadbent's range as an actor. He oozes tenderness and vulnerability. Dench is magnificent, as usual. Winslet and Bonneville are also excellent. The film's broken narrative with numerous flashbacks is awkward. It also overdoes the titillation factor with lots of nude shots of Winslet skinnydipping. It would have also been good to see more of the intellectual (as opposed to the physical) side of Iris at her brilliant best before she lost her memory. We don't really get to know much about her accomplishments as a philosopher and novelist in the film. Still, it is an emotionally powerful film with tremendous acting performances. It rates a B.
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