Iris

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Iris

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During a prolific stretch from the '50s to the '80s, Iris Murdoch wrote two dozen novels, but that period of her life is relegated to a footnote in the trite biopic Iris, which only covers the first and the last book—and barely, at that. Working from a pair of best-selling biographies (Elegy For Iris and Iris And Her Friends) by Murdoch's devoted husband John Bayley, director and co-writer Richard Eyre at least sidesteps the common pitfall of trying to cover the entirety of his subject's life. But the fragments he settles on are perplexing, almost perverse: If Murdoch's work remains her enduring legacy, why are the filmmakers so uninterested in it? Aside from offering a few vague scraps of erudition, mostly in a speech Murdoch delivers to a university staff, Eyre shows far less interest in her writing skills than the disease that ultimately quashed them. In a crosscutting scheme that repeats its rhymes on too many occasions, Eyre volleys back and forth between the young, vibrant, independent Murdoch and the old, helpless, dependent shadow of her former self. Played in youth by Kate Winslet, who embodies the role with unfettered confidence and vitality, Murdoch has casual affairs with numerous male and female suitors, taking special pleasure in flouting conventional morality. Yet she falls in love with her opposite, the shy and socially awkward Bayley (Hugh Bonneville, all tics and mannerisms), who finds her exciting enough that he can tolerate her promiscuity. From scenes of the young couple frolicking on land and sea, Eyre cuts to the elderly Murdoch and Bayley (tenderly wrought by Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent) in a dank, filthy home, as they combat the ravages of her rapidly progressing Alzheimer's. As Murdoch grapples with her waning intellect, Bayley tries to care for a woman who bears an increasingly distant resemblance to the one he married. Among the obvious contrasts—young and old, alert and senile, liberated and stifled—the one true connection between the two periods is that a crucial part of Murdoch's imagination could never be accessed by anyone, even her dearest companion. But since the fruit of that imagination seems so incidental to Eyre, Iris could be about any couple struggling with Alzheimer's, instead of one exalted by celebrity alone. Considered as an anonymous pair, Dench and Broadbent respond to each other exceptionally well, subtly charting the demise of an intimate long-term partnership that suddenly loses its comforting familiarity. Dench, especially, burrows into a role that would trip up a showier actress; she loses herself (and her ego) in scenes that require her to give only the faintest hint of recognition. But their performances would be better served by a disease-of-the-week picture about an elderly couple named John and Jane Doe, without all the literary pretense and other baggage that attends this true story. As a biopic, Iris fails on the most fundamental level, because it never expresses why Murdoch's life, specifically, was important.

Filed Under: Film

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