2001, R, 91 min. Directed by Richard Eyre. Starring Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet, Hugh Bonneville, Juliet Aubrey, Kris Marshall, Penelope Wilton.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., March 1, 2002
As the lovely film Iris attests, the bonds of love are often forged to withstand the most daunting of adversities, beyond what we might rationally expect ourselves capable of enduring. In the case of British literary lioness Iris Murdoch and her devoted husband John Bayley, a 40-year union grounded in mutual admiration, complimentary personality differences, and an undying need for the other is challenged when her light slowly dims with the onset of Alzheimer's disease. In documenting the progression of Iris' disease -- what she described as “sailing into darkness” -- the film transcends the mundane; this is a poignant love story without gimmicks, a tribute to a beautiful mind and the man who loved it. Having said that, Iris is difficult to watch, given that it requires you to witness the transformation of the title character from a literate, vibrant woman to the ghost of her former self. It begins with the occasional forgotten word and lapse of memory; it ends with an almost-childlike implacability and a near-complete disconnection to the world. (Dench is a marvel in chronicling this change in Murdoch; the physicality of her performance is all too real.) And when you imagine what it must be like for her husband, John (Broadbent), to witness this drastic metamorphosis in the woman he loves, it's simply heartbreaking. He is at once baffled, overwhelmed, frightened, and angry, conflicting emotions all the more amplified by the fact that she has always played the more dynamic role in their relationship. Charles Wood and Richard Eyre's screenplay is structured in a way that the past informs the present, jumping back and forth between Iris and John's unlikely courtship during their days at Oxford (Winslet and Bonneville play the younger version of the couple) to the present day, as the two struggle with her debilitating illness. Although these temporal jumps are initially distracting to the point of annoyance, they eventually serve their purpose by showing you what strange and wondrous things ultimately bind these two very dissimilar people together for a lifetime. In the end, Iris is really John's story (it's based on his memoir, Elegy for Iris), and Broadbent gives an outstanding performance in the role of Iris' constant companion. While Broadbent's John is almost buffoonish in his doddering English demeanor, the bewildered anguish that he conveys in trying to comprehend the incomprehensible is all too human. In one memorable scene, Broadbent rails almost unintelligibly at his wife one night in bed, fully knowing that she can't be held responsible for her actions, but needing to express his rage and pain to her -- at her -- nevertheless. It is a harrowing moment completely out of character for a man who adores his wife with all his being, frightening in its fury, but comforting in its assurance that, even in its darkest hours, love will withstand just about anything.