directed by Richard Eyre with Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Bonneville opens Feb. 15 at Guild 45
YOU MIGHT AS WELL call this Oscar vehicle for Judi Dench My Left Lobe. The Alzheimer's that strikes novelist-philosopher Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) is yet another one of those afflictions so beloved of AMPAS voters. Sean Penn has tried the same awards strategy with the greatly inferior I Am Sam, while Russell Crowe comes out looking best in A Beautiful Mind, since that picture actually manages to entertain without wallowing in the pathos that fatally undermines this British tearjerker.
In part, Iris fails as cinema because the narrative trajectory is wrong (even if scrupulously medically accurate). Unlike Mind's third-act Nobel Prize reward, this movie can only follow the irreversibly tragic and downward course of Alzheimer's. It's a bummer, to say the least. Wisely, then, Iris opts for a nonlinear approach to the writer's life, one based largely on two memoirs by her husband, John Bayley, who's well played in youth and maturity by Hugh Bonneville and Jim Broadbent, respectively. Kate Winslet is the young Murdoch, and she makes the Oxford-in-the-'50s portion of the film reasonably enjoyable.
Swimming naked in the river, pedaling her bicycle madly downhill, tormenting stuttering, shy, virginal John with her lovers, this Murdoch is a brainy, inscrutable hellion. She's "something of a closed book," John later comments on his disease-stricken wife. "Perhaps that's what she's always wanted."
Well—that's fine for authors, less good for audiences. Mind works better because it lets us in to the schizophrenic delusions of its subject. With Iris, there's literally no place to go; how can you show an absence? It's always deadly dull to show a writer at work (particularly when she's grasping for a forgotten word). "I feel as if I'm sailing into darkness," says a still-lucid, scared Murdoch. It's an awful fate, but one that gives Dench too little opportunity to act—which is to say, to manifest something, to project, as Crowe does in Mind. Instead, she's trapped into ever-tightening introversion in Iris, peeing on papers like a puppy and driving her husband crazy.
Indeed, the exasperated, long-suffering Bayley emerges as a martyr; the old and young Murdochs are equally cruel to him. Even when Dench is cogently lecturing and spouting aphorisms, her stern intellect is forbidding and unfriendly. Winslet's capriciousness and fuck-it-all insouciance are far more attractive. She's the kind of woman you could love but not necessarily want to stay with in the long run. That Bayley did is certainly admirable and courageous; filmgoers may not prove so devoted.