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ISSUE 115 VOL 18 PUBLISHED 4/19/2002

'Iris' captures Murdoch's spirit

By Anonymous
Contributing Writer

Friday, April 19, 2002

Iris Murdoch was a floating free spirit with a sharp mind and witty air unlike any other novelist. Her essence is captured beautifully in "Iris," the film adaptation of her husband John Bayley's memoirs. "Iris" has yet to make it to wide release, but with any luck it will come to a theater near you. Despite its low budget (a mere $5.5 million), its good reviews and recent Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor Jim Broadbent (as Bayley) should catapult it into wider release. Oscar nominees Judi Dench and Kate Winslet share the title role as the "old" and "young" Iris, respectively. The story begins late in Murdoch's life, as she completes what would become her final novel. Fazed by her growing inability to remember words and describe things, she is diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. As her great mind begins to wilt, she is strongly supported by her husband, John (Broadbent), who tries to keep up a healthy writing life of his own. Spliced within these scenes are flashbacks to the 1950s when the young Iris (Winslet) meets the young Bayley (Hugh Bonneville). The young Iris smokes, speaks her intelligent mind and takes multiple sexual partners (of both sexes). She also takes pleasure in documenting her life in private, autobiographical writings that she ultimately shares with only John. He, meanwhile, expresses his frustration over her lack of commitment and continual participation in sexual escapades with other people. These "young" scenes are sprinkled throughout the "old" ones to show the sad contrast between Murdoch's once-young, once-great mind and her crumbling intellectual world. The film opens with Winslet and Bonneville's Iris and John playfully skinny-dipping in a nearby river, which is one of their favorite rituals. As Dench's Iris tumbles farther into numbness, she can no longer swim without frightening herself. Similarly, a flashback scene in which Iris and John dine with one of her intellectual friends is juxtaposed with a segment from the present in which the same man returns the confused Iris home after she has gotten lost wandering in the street. This constant scene-cutting by Director Richard Eyre may be a bit clumsy, but it succeeds as a heartbreaking way to portray the terror of Alzheimer's disease. The actors are certainly up to the task. Dench believably portrays Iris both before and after the disease strikes. At the beginning, she is quick and crisp, but even in the portrayal of her final months, Iris' spirit never leaves Dench's eyes  despite the fact that she can barely even talk anymore. As Iris weakens, John's heart breaks, and Broadbent deservedly won the Oscar for easing us through this process. Through it all, he attempts to maintain his typical jolly and jovial manner, simply calling Iris a "bad cat" when she pees on the living room floor. But even when all of his frustrations come out in a moving scene in which he shouts at Iris in bed, Broadbent makes it perfectly obvious that John loves his wife, no matter what. But as Iris loses her mind, he loses part of his soul. Winslet and Bonneville are also fantastic. Winslet isn't your typical dead-ringer for Dench, but she emanates such intellectual beauty that we understand why people find Iris so attractive. And Bonneville really looks and sounds like a young Broadbent/Bayley, which is no easy feat. At the end of the screening I attended, most stayed until the credits were over, slowly got up and walked out in some sort of funereal fashion. It says a lot if a film can capture someone's spirit so well that people mourn after they throw away their empty popcorn buckets and get in their cars.

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