Reviewed by Dennis Morton
The movie was over and one by one we left
the theatre and filtered into the lobby, which was illuminated by the noon
sun. We were movie reviewers and we'd just attended an advanced screening
of a film about a great writer, Iris Murdoch, who spent her final years
suffering from Alzheimer's. There were sighs and mutterings and I'm sure
we were all remembering Murdoch's description of the disease. She said
it felt "... like sailing into darkness." Probably because of the work
we do, the idea of losing the facility for language was especially troubling.
We were soon on our separate ways.
I've been thinking about "Iris" for several
days. When the film opens this weekend at The Nickelodeon, in downtown
Santa Cruz, I'll be taking another look at it. In the meantime, I'll track
down one of Murdoch's novels. The movie made me very curious about her.
But at the same time, I have to report that I'm somewhat dissatisfied with
the film. And I'm not quite sure why.
My misgivings are certainly not strong
enough to dissuade you from seeing it. In fact, I urge you to see "Iris".
There are three very fine performances in it, each of which earned the
actor an Oscar nomination. And I can say without hesitation that "Iris"
is a better movie than the much ballyhooed "A Beautiful Mind". Though it
received an Oscar nomination for best picture, "A Beautiful Mind" is just
a notch or two above mediocre. And Jim Broadbent's performance as John
Bayley, Iris Murdoch's devoted husband of 43 years, is many watts brighter
than Russell Crowe's performance as the eponymous "beautiful mind".
In "Iris" screenwriter Charles Wood and
director and co/writer Richard Eyre do give us a glimpse of Murdoch's scintillating
intelligence. Production notes indicate that she was often referred to
as "the most brilliant woman in England". In the film, there are verbatim
passages of Murdoch's speeches and appearances. They are tantalizingly
short passages, however, and left me hungering for more.
And if I can come close to identifying
what bothered me about "Iris", it's probably that I wanted the spotlight
to be focused more on her amazing life than on the relationship between
the long married couple. But that clearly would have been a different film
and one other than what Richard Eyre intended. Here's how Eyre sums up
the film. He says that it's, "Essentially...about forms of love and the
way in which love changes and love endures." In other words, this is a
love story. And it's a good love story, too.
It's probably not a coincidence that director
Richard Eyre's mother, and Jim Broadbent's mother, died from Alzheimer's.
I suspect that the shape, the very construction of the movie, was mitigated
by these facts.
The movie shifts back and forth between
the first and last few years of the Bayley/Murdoch marriage. The 35 years
at the heart of their marriage is only obliquely referenced. During that
time Iris Murdoch wrote 23 of her 25 novels and lived a most unstaid life.
She apparently, with the full knowledge and consent of her husband, had
many lovers, men and women. In a letter to a friend she is reported to
have said: Real life is so much odder than any book.
But again, that's another movie. This
one is a portrait of total acceptance, in which each partner, in the best
possible sense of the phrase, 'takes the other for granted'. "Iris" is
as much the story of John Bayley as it is of Iris Murdoch. Perhaps it would
have been more forthright to have called it "Iris And John".
I realize I've not even mentioned the
names of the women who play the young and older Iris. Kate Winslet is magnificent.
I continue to be reminded of the truth of a friend's observation. She was
joking, but 'right on' when she quipped: you have to be pretty smart to
pretend you're intelligent. Judi Dench as the suffering Iris and Kate Winslet
as the vibrant younger version must be very smart indeed.
If for no other reason than their fine
performances, I recommend "Iris" to you. And I hope that right now some
bright scriptwriter is toiling away on the fabulous thirty five missing
years in the life of Iris Murdoch.
"Iris" opens this weekend at The Nickelodeon
in downtown Santa Cruz.
For the Film Gang, this is Dennis Morton.
Copyright Dennis Morton 2002