“They were like two halves of an apple.” That’s how actress Judi Dench describes the relationship between novelist Iris Murdoch and critic John Bayley detailed in “Iris,” but that pithy characterization also explains why this intelligent, poignant film is so affecting.
It’s not only that Murdoch and Bayley had just that kind of kinship over the span of a 40-plus year marriage, it’s that the actors manage an identically close and intimate relationship both to each other and to the characters they play. It’s rare for all those connections to be as strong and intense as they are here. Even more unusual is that these bonds are formed among not two actors but four; because the film’s narration cuts back and forth between the early days of Murdoch and Bayley’s acquaintance and the closing years of their marriage decades later, Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville play the pair when they’re young and Dench and Jim Broadbent do the honors when they’re not.
“Iris’” director is stage veteran Richard Eyre, artistic director for Britain’s Royal National Theatre from 1988 to 1997. Co-writing the script with Charles Wood (whose credits go back to “The Knack” and “Help!”), Eyre has turned out a film that is as much a thoughtful and involving two-character study as a conventional narrative.
Adapted from “Elegy for Iris,” Bayley’s much-admired memoir, “Iris” deals alternately with the beginnings of the couple’s emotional attraction and with what happens when a mature relationship is stricken by affliction. For, as Bayley’s book movingly related, Murdoch was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1994 and quickly went downhill after that. Having that disease strike Murdoch seems an especially cruel blow.
As “Iris” illustrates, she was a remarkable woman, both philosopher and marathon novelist (she wrote 26), a formidable intellect for whom, as Bayley puts it, “words have meant everything.” She’s a woman in love with language, asking at one point, “If one doesn’t have words, how does one think?”
Words were not the only thing Murdoch was in love with. Direct, passionate, sure of herself, the kind of individual whose hunger for experience led her to swallow life whole, she had numerous affairs with men and women. When the younger John Bayley meets her at Oxford in 1954, he’s almost stunned at her vivacity. When someone asks him, “Are you with Iris?” a short time later, “I hope so” is his honest, flummoxed reply.
Though a brilliant mind, Bayley is shy, diffident and sexually inexperienced. When the brazen Iris investigates his quarters, he pipes up that “having women in my room is not permitted,” to which she smartly ripostes, “I wouldn’t say you’ve had me, exactly.”
Yet “Iris” sees beyond these surface differences, sees beyond Bayley’s pain at Murdoch’s promiscuity, showing the kind of solace the couple found in each other as well as the pleasure they took in simple things like river swimming and, in one charming scene, rubbing noses and chanting “snubby, snubby, snubby.”
None of this would be as clear as it is without Winslet’s strong performance. The fearlessness the actress brings to her choice of roles especially suits her here, where, with able support from Bonneville, she creates a character who exuded so much life force that contemporaries said she had the look of a young lioness. As an added bonus, Winslet manages to look very much like a younger version of Dench’s Iris. “There’s a correspondence of spirit between them,” is how director Eyre puts it. “They kind of rhyme.”
As for Dench, the resemblance between her and photographs of her character is startling. Her performance is the equal of Winslet’s, as she takes the by-now-celebrated writer, “the foremost English novelist of her generation,” first into the shadow of the disease and then into the rigors of its full-blown night. It is also a fearless, vanity-free performance, as Dench does a masterful job of portraying the pain of realizing she’s not remembering followed by vacancy, absence and sheer terrifying blankness.
One of the focuses of “Iris” is the effect the incapacity of the “capable” half of this relationship has on the more muddled Bayley, a most unlikely caregiver. Bolstered by an excellent performance by Broadbent, “Iris” does not shortchange the exasperation, even the fury felt by a man overmatched by a twist of fate.
Bayley had earlier described his relationship by saying he was “the young man in love with a beautiful maiden who disappears to an unknown and mysterious world every now and again ... but who always comes back.” Now, gradually, Murdoch has stopped returning, and the struggles, the sadness, the unlikely heroism that results is what “Iris” is about.
MPAA rating: R, for sexuality/nudity and some language. Times guidelines: Adult subject matter; the sexuality is brief but vivid.
Judi Dench...Iris Murdoch
Jim Broadbent...John Bayley
Kate Winslet...Young Iris Murdoch
Hugh Bonneville...Young John Bayley
Miramax Films, BBC Films, Intermedia Films present a Mirage Enterprises/Robert Fox/Scott Rudin production, released by Miramax. Director Richard Eyre. Producers Robert Fox, Scott Rudin. Executive producers Anthony Minghella, Sydney Pollack, Guy East, David M. Thompson, Tom Hedley, Harvey Weinstein. Screenplay by Richard Eyre and Charles Wood, based on John Bayley’s books, “Iris: A Memoir” and “An Elegy for Iris.” Cinematographer Roger Pratt. Editor Martin Walsh. Costume designer Ruth Myers. Music James Horner. Production designer Gemma Jackson. Art director David Warren. Set decorator Trisha Edwards. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.
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