Iris is the story of the noted author and
Booker Prize winner, Iris Murdoch, who died about three years ago, after
struggling some years with Alzheimer's disease. The story is based on two
books about Iris (Iris and Her Friends: A Memoir of Memory and Desire,
and Elegy for Iris ) by John Bayley, Murdoch's famous husband. The film
was financed in part by the BBC.
The film moves between two time frames. In
the earlier time, a feisty young Iris (Kate Winslet) goes through lovers of
both sexes, and experiences various Bohemian adventures before settling with
the conservative, stable Bayley. In the second part, Bayley helps the older
Iris (Judy Dench) cope with her failing years. The two halves form a
portrait of a resilient marriage between two good, strong, intelligent and
I liked this deeply flawed movie for many
reasons, not all of which are logical.
My mother, who was an accomplished woman by
the standards of her time, a college graduate, a teacher, and an opera
singer, was also an Alzheimer's victim. I wasn't really present to watch her
descent. For the last decade of her life, my sister took care of her, and my
dad did what he could, despite physical problems of his own. I lived around
the world, in places like Sydney, Oslo, and Vienna, and for me she was
mostly just a voice on the phone. The movie Iris let me see what I missed,
and filled me with guilt and sadness, as well as admiration for my sister
and father. I felt, at the same time, guilt that I had missed the closing
chapter of her life, and great relief that I had not seen her like that, and
then guilt again for feeling that relief.
I was lucky, you see. I am still able to
remember my mom as the impressive woman she once was, without having to
remember her as a burden. And I feel guilty for that luck. Guilty that I let
other people face the problem without my help.
I was living in Oslo in the early 90's, and
mom was still calling me once a week, and writing quite often, sending
English-language puzzle books, and American snacks, and family photos. Then
the letters stopped. The phone calls stopped from their direction. I called
them once in a while, of course, and noticed that my mom was starting to
make less sense each time. I visited home in the late 90's. My sister called
my mom in from her bedroom.
sister: Mom. Greg is here.
mom: Greg who?
sister: Your son Greg
mom: I have a son?
The dying of the light.
I guess you can figure out how the visit
went from there. She had been "out of it" for a few years by the time of
that visit, and would die within a year, so she was then in the later stages
of mental deterioration, and in a stage of physical decrepitude that I
wasn't prepared for from phone conversations. Alzheimer's patients aren't
very interested in dentists or hairstylists, nor are they especially welcome
patients, and they normally live about a decade after the first diagnosis of
their problem. I would not have recognized her if I had passed her on the
She did figure out who I was, but then
asked me the same question about 30 times in a row, had no idea how many
wives or children I had had, or what I had done during my life. I don't have
to spell it out. You know the drill. She only perked to life when I sang
some of the solos from her career. She practiced them so many times when I
was a kid that I knew them by heart. Her eyes sparkled with recognition,
then she sang along softly with me, her voice still smoother than mine, her
ear still more acute. For some brief moments, her great talent defeated not
only her disease, but even her age.
Then she was on her ship again, sailing
back into darkness.
The movie is very subtle for a dread
disease film. It is honest in its portrayal of the characters and their
flaws. It is never rhetorical or cloying or ingratiating. It is a simple,
unembellished story told with candor. The acting is remarkable. Four actors
play two parts seamlessly, down to the voices, accents, and mannerisms, so
that the time shifts are managed to perfection.
I said before that the film was deeply
flawed. The reason is that this movie could be about anyone. It really has
nothing whatever to say about Iris Murdoch. If you do not know now why she
is a great writer or thinker, you will have no idea after this film is over.
The script doesn't show her being brilliant. The film does not really even
give many solid examples of her brilliance. We are left to assume it.
Furthermore, there is a gaping flaw in the character development. It is
extremely difficult if not impossible to ascertain how Murdoch chose Bayley
as her lifelong companion. Bayley's recollections formed the spring whence
this story flowed, and he was guilty of excessive modesty. There are times
which call for modesty and self-deprecation, but in this script those
characteristics turned out to be liabilities because they created a
If you don't know anything about Ms.
Murdoch, here is what the movie is about:
A sexy much-desired woman, who is pursued
by nearly everyone of both sexes, ends up marrying a complete dweeb who is
obviously hygienically challenged. There is no way to understand why she
chose such a complete loser, but it's a damned good thing that she did,
because he tended to her faithfully decades later when Alzheimer's took away
her mental and physical allure, and all of her other friends deserted her.
Can you see what is missing here?
1. There must be a damned good reason why
she chose Bayley. It would have been wise to clear out Bayley's posturing
narrative modesty and demonstrate it. By all accounts, Bayley was a
brilliant literary critic, extraordinarily well-read on English and Russian
literature, and a witty man. You would not know that after watching this
film. You'd think he was a faithful lap dog who was grateful for Murdoch's
2. Why is Murdoch such an important figure in
English letters? The film assumes that you know. Warren Spahn once said that he
couldn't figure out why people thought Casey Stengel was so smart, because he
was the only guy to play for Casey Stengel before and after Casey became a
genius, but not during. (The Boston Braves pre-Yankees, and the Mets
post-Yankees). This film gives you the Warren Spahn look at Iris Murdoch. It
shows you Murdoch before she was a genius and after, but not during.
Because of those flaws, this simple, touching
movie is not great, but merely good. When I was a kid, mothers used to give
their children cod liver oil. We took it, not because we wanted to, but
because we were told it was good for us. Iris is the cod liver oil of
movies. It is not a movie that you really want to see, but one that you
should, because it's good for you. The portrayal of Murdoch's deterioration
is painstakingly accurate, and the love of her husband is touching.