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Read past reviews by the Film Gang

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