Starring: Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet, Hugh Bonneville, Penelope Wilton

Richard Eyre

Writing credits: Charles Wood, Richard Eyre
Distributor: Miramax Films * 90 minutes
Rated: R for sexuality/nudity and some language
  (US 2001)

There are few things in life that make one feel more helpless than watching a loved one die slowly. We watch them slip away, powerless to stop the relentless progression of disease, cognizant of, but still denying, the reality we see in front of us. Alzheimer's is perhaps the kindest of all the diseases of the aging to the person it strikes, for ultimately the patient loses knowledge of what is happening. The toll on the caregiver, however, is another story. And when the victim is someone whose entire being is about words and thoughts and ideas, the tragedy to both seems magnified.

A pox on the house of whoever created the television genre of "Disease of the Week", for it is into this galvanized can that all movies about disease are lumped together, regardless of quality. A pox on RAIN MAN and FORREST GUMP and I AM SAM for turning the portrayal of infirmity into a cliche to be branded an "Oscar® grab." A few years ago, Michael Winterbottom's throwaway weepie GO NOW was briefly released in the U.S. to capitalize on the equally fleeting fame of its star, Robert Carlyle, as an blue collar worker afflicted with multiple sclerosis. And now the incomparable Judi Densch shows the devastation of Alzheimer's, and is already being criticized for doing so. Call it what you will, the portrayal of illness by a healthy actor is one of the biggest challenges an actor can face.

IRIS strives mightily to rise above its cliched roots, and while it at times succeeds, its flaws lie outside the realm of its portrayal of the disease. The story is constructed around flashbacks which appear as manifestations of the random firings of the plaque-encrusted neurons of Iris Murdoch's deteriorating brain. This is strangely appropriate, as Alzheimer's patients often retain long-ago memories, it's recent events that they lose. The device packs an emotional wallop, as it compresses time into such a small space that we have an all-too-accurate sense that youth is fleeting, and before we turn around, we're watching teletubbies, can't recognize Tony Blair, and repeat ourselves endlessly.

That the film focuses on this sense of loss and on the progression of the disease, rather than who the Iris Murdoch who warrants a biopic was, we have no sense of either the writer or the woman, other than as an iconoclast who enjoyed riding bicycles and skinnydipping; who smoked cigarettes and slept around. Presumably this sleeping around was with both men and women; we can tell because in one scene, the young Iris as portrayed by Kate Winslet kisses a woman who we can tell is a lesbian because she is done up like Julie Andrews in Victor, Victoria. How this dynamic woman ends up with the stuttering, bumbling, virginal John Bayley (portrayed as a young man by Hugh Bonneville) remains a mystery to us, as well as do much of the workings of the woman's extraordinary mind.

The film, based on Bayley's ELEGY FOR IRIS, focuses as much on Bayley's tribulations in being married to a woman he could never really possess, as well as one whose work and reputation far outshadowed his own. As portrayed here, and presumably in real life, their relationship was one of those marriages inexplicable to the outside world, one in which each partner has as great a need for separateness as togetherness. And yet, once that separateness became biological, rather than by choice, the compromises to his own needs that Bayley has made in the marriage become clear, in a devastating scene in which he shouts at the sleeping and now childlike Iris, "Who are you with now, Iris?"

IRIS is without a doubt one of the most impeccably crafted films of the year. No fault can be found in the performances. Judi Densch's portrayal of a woman who is losing her most precious possession -- her intellect -- is spot-on perfect, right down to the blank, vague smile of the advanced Alzheimer's patient. Unfortunately, the ability to portray illness has gained a reputation as an "Oscar(R) grab", and in this case, the criticism is undeserved. As Bayley, Jim Broadbent once again shows that he is one of the most versatile characters of his generation. Few actors can segue as seamlessly in one year from singing "Like a Virgin" in a production number in MOULIN ROUGE to playing the complexities of a figure like John Bayley. Hugh Bonneville, who is a near dead-ringer for a young Broadbent, imbues the young Bayley with perhaps a few too many tics and stutters, making Iris' attraction for him nearly inexplicable.

It is, however, Kate Winslet's performance as the young Iris that is the most problematic. It's certainly flawless; no one can portray free-spirited women in period pictures like Winslet. In role after role, she has an energy that seems to practically burst out of her skin. However, we have seen her play this role again and again and again. Winslet is perhaps the most formidable young actress around today, and what I wouldn't give to see her play the mad Juliet Hulme again, instead of reprising Sue Bridehead yet another time. Indeed, IRIS contains two cycling sequences that are literally lifted from JUDE, right down to the shot of the bumbling-but-lovable lover who can't pedal properly. We know that Winslet can play free spirits; it's time for her to take on a new challenge.

The production design is impeccable, with lovely underwater scenes of Iris swimming, as Murdoch loved so well. These scenes are notable for Judi Densch's willingness to have her dumpy, middle-aged body photographed in a swimsuit juxtaposed against Winslet's youthful earth-mother. Murdoch and Bayley's affably cluttered, "famously chaotic household" is an effective backdrop which becomes part of the story as its migration from chaos to filth and neglect is almost imperceptibly referenced. James Horner's lovely score, as rendered by the violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, sets of the story marvelously, without a trace of the derivativeness and often overpowering mawkishness that has characterized many of his recent scores.

The frustration of IRIS is that the whole is somehow, frustratingly, less than the sum of its parts. Instead of an unforgettable portrayal of an iconoclastic woman with a formidable intellect, instead we are presented with a mournful elegy on the passing of the film flesh of youth into dumpy old age, a passing of mind into "that good night". This sort of "mood picture" might make a good art film, but stuffed into a biopic suit of clothing, it merely seems incomplete.

- Jill Cozzi

Review text copyright © 2001 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.


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