I finally got around to watching Iris this week, nine years overdue! The film was released in 2001 and stars Judi Dench as Iris Murdoch, one of the most celebrated novelists of the last century. It also stars Kate Winslet as a young Iris and Jim Broadbent, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Iris’s husband John Bayley.
I found the film enormously moving and very sad, perhaps because I know a little about Iris and have read some of her work. Born in Ireland in 1919, her family moved to England when she was a small child. Iris showed a prodigious intelligence from a very young age, and after school she went on to read classics, ancient history, and philosophy at Oxford and philosophy as a postgraduate at Cambridge. In 1948, she became a fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford. Murdoch was a prolific writer, producing 26 novels in her lifetime, as well as philosophical works, poetry and plays. Once when asked whether she took a long break between writing novels, she answered “about half an hour”.
The film skips back and forth in time, showing the beginning of Iris and John’s relationship in Oxford in the early 1950s and then showing the breakdown in their relationship as Iris is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1995 and John becomes her carer. Winslet plays the young Iris with gusto, perfectly communicating Iris’s magnetic personality and sharp intellect. Hugh Bonneville plays the young John Bayley, a man out of his depth in Iris’s world of bohemian sexual freedom but helplessly drawn to her nonetheless.
Iris was known to have extramarital affairs (most notably with Nobel prize winning writer Elias Canetti) and this is hinted at in the film. John forgives these indiscretions and it seems that Iris is the dominant partner in the relationship, the one with all the power. This is horribly reversed when Iris falls ill with Alzheimers; suddenly she is dependent on John and the balance of power shifts. Broadbent sympathetically shows the frustration and anger that can overcome even the most dedicated and loving caretaker. Dench is marvellous as always and her bewilderment and fear at losing her mind is one of the most affecting things about the film.
It’s not all doom and gloom. There are many comic moments, such as when Iris is undergoing one of the early tests for Alzheimers and is asked who the Prime Minister is. She cannot remember but with her characteristic wit she reassures both her husband and the doctor by saying, “I’m sure someone will know”.
Iris is definitely one of the better movies I’ve watched in recent months and even if you’re not familiar with her work (I would recommend her debut novel Under The Net as a great place to start) I think the film is enjoyable on its own merits.