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Iris, based on the life of revered British writer and philosopher Iris Murdoch, is a story of unlikely yet enduring love. As a young academic, teaching philosophy at Oxford, Murdoch meets and eventually falls in love with fellow professor John Bayley, a man whose awkwardness seems in stark opposition to the spirited self-confidence of his future wife. The story unfolds as snippets of time, seen through Bayley's eyes. He recalls their first encounter over 40 years ago, activities they enjoyed doing together, and Iris' charismatic and individualistic personality. These images portray Murdoch as a vibrant young woman with great intellect and are contrasted with the novelist's later life, after the effects of Alzheimer's disease have ravaged her. Murdoch's great mind deteriorates until she is reduced to a mere vestige of her former self, unable to perform simple tasks and completely reliant on her at times frustrated yet devoted husband. Written by
Iris is one of those dramas that is so startlingly well acted and accurate to reality that you truly see the people on screen suffering through the story rather than the actors portraying them. And in a film that stars Judi Dench, that is a remarkable achievement. Dench and Kate Winslet are made to look so similar that when the film jumps back and forth between past and present, which it does quite often, it is never jarring no matter how abrupt it is. The young Iris, played by Winslet, is similar to the character that she played in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in many ways. She is sexually adventurous without being promiscuous, independent without being unfriendly or unattached, and dependent without being needy or reliant. She ultimately pursues a successful career as a novelist, which serves to illustrate her love and dependence on words and to enhance the effect of her deterioration later in the film.
Iris is famously a study of Alzheimer's disease, which is the kind of thing that rarely makes its way into mainstream films, so it is that much more moving that a movie as brilliant as this one takes on the subject and brings it to the forefront in such a dramatic fashion. Iris goes from being a tremendously successful novelist to not understanding which side of an open door she should pass in order to get through it. As she loses touch with reality and experiences more and more difficulty in speaking and understanding, the most moving scenes are the ones that show the suffering that her husband goes through before his own deterioration.
Iris has spent her life exploring things like what it is that makes people happy and what makes them realize that they are happy once they are, and then shows as she loses touch with those things without even realizing it. Her husband, John Bayley, in a brilliant performance by Jim Broadbent, is the only man who she has ever been with that has truly loved her, and he is the one that has to watch her cognitive abilities decline. He is literally watching the love of his life slip away from him without her even realizing it.
The film is beautifully shot and the musical score enhances the film spectacularly and unobtrusively. It brings out the emotions in a movie about losing not only memory, but about losing the your identity, losing yourself. The gradual nature of the onset of Alzheimer's disease is one of the most brilliantly presented elements in the film. There is a conversation that Iris and her husband have in which she gives him a quote, which he responds to in a way that shows his own mental decline, and then Iris' as well.
Iris - "Between two evils always choose the one you haven't tried before."
John - "Mae West. Oh my vest! I tore my vest again this morning!"
Iris - "You must get some new vests."
John "Jolly good "
Iris "You must get some new vests," then, surprised at herself, "I just said that."
This all kind of makes me wonder, because it is not very rare that I will ask someone a question that I already asked and they already answered, sometimes only a minute or two before, and when they tell me I just asked them that question I have to explain that I just wasn't sure if I had asked them out loud or just thought the question in my head. Where the answer ever went in my brain remains a mystery.
It is very important that the movie spends so much time showing how much of a fiercely intelligent philosopher (in Kate Winslet's words) Iris Murdock was, because it emphasizes the totality with which Alzheimer's affects her ability to think. As a young woman she could talk circles around people, but when she grew older and Alzheimer's began to set in she became confused by the simplest concepts, and the difficulty that her husband found in attempting to explain things to her and hide what must have been his overwhelming emotion.
I'm in the middle of reading a wonderful book by Sidney Lumet called Making Movies, and I just finished a chapter on actors, in which there is a section where he described some actors who believe so strongly in the material of a film that they will do whatever it takes to get the movie made. Many actors have taken salaries far below their usually asking prices in order to participate in a movie about which they felt very strongly, and Iris is one of those movies, although I don't know whether or not any of the actors took smaller salaries than they deserved. There is a short documentary on the DVD called 'A Look at Iris' in which the cast and crew talk about the movie, and it is clear how strongly they feel about the film. Kate Winslet nails it on the head in one clip, where she says that she knows that people who knew the real Iris Murdock would see the movie, so it was all the more important that she get the character exactly right. I love that.
In Iris's own words, "If one doesn't have words how does one think?" That's exactly the question that this movie so touchingly explores. It is about people loving and then losing each other with torturous slowness, in one of the most moving and important films of 2001.
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