Rated R - Running Time: 1:30 - Released 12/14/01

I suppose the threat of Alzheimer's disease, a presently incurable illness which cripples the mind and erases the memory, usually during old age, is one of the primary fears of the senior generation, in the same way that, a few generations ago, tuberculosis, diphtheria, or polio would have borne the ominous specter of certain death to anyone who contracted it. The thought of "losing one's mind" is perhaps an even more emotionally paralyzing fate, especially for those who are especially thoughtful, who have benefited from being educated and well-read, than one with more physical pain. Richard Eyre's touching film Iris explores this scary and all too common scenario with grace and tenderness, telling the true story of noted British novelist and Oxford philosophy professor Iris Murdoch, whose love for words and freedom were brought to a gradual and tragic end when she contracted Alzheimer's late in life and lost all contact with her previous literary achievements and well-respected status.

There is not a slouch in this film, in front of or behind the camera. Starring in the title role is Judi Dench, one of the most underappreciated actresses today, and as usual, she does exquisite work, garnering an Oscar nomination (but not the award) for her efforts. Opposite her and no less eloquent is Jim Broadbent, who did win Best Supporting Actor for this role and rightly so. Dench's slip into madness, if you will, is gradual, subtle, and tragically unremarkable; it is made all the more believable by her understanding of the tiny but inevitable steps by which one makes such a descent. Broadbent, playing her well-educated but socially awkward partner, professor and writer John Bayley, forced to assume the uncomfortable role as the dominant partner, is beautiful in his unwillingness to accept the terrible obvious, and perhaps even more beautiful in his final acceptance of it.

Besides Dench and Broadbent, however, the performances of Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville (as Iris and John in their early years) deserve no less credit. The film skips back and forth between post-war and present-day England; it is, in fact, their performances which let us know how the couple's romance evolved and to what extent their life together was changed by its tragic outcome. Winslet and Bonneville seem to be doing studied and accomplished impersonations of the older actors, but their work is so much more than simply an imitation of Dench and Broadbent; Winslet gives Iris the kind of life she must have had as a young, brash philosopher in the 1940s, filled with revolutionary ideas and an adventurous love of life, sex, passion... Bonneville's stuttering, nervous John, unsure of why he has captured such a wild beauty and of whether he is even worthy of her, and yet frustrated with her occasionally cavalier and insensitive treatment toward him, gives the role a depth that underpins Broadbent's complex characterization of the man later in life, with all the love, frustration, tenderness, and confusion that resulted from the intervening years' experiences.

This script, based on John Bayley's books Iris: A Memoir and Elegy for Iris, converted into a screenplay by director Eyre and Charles Wood, is eloquent and touching, but unafraid to show the occasional harshness of human nature and the stresses at work on people whose lives have been turned upside-down. "It doesn't matter what you say to her," John says at one point, "as long as you say it like you're telling a joke." The film's constant oscillation between the two time periods is as entertaining as it is enlightening, but it seems to rush the story somewhat, especially toward the end, when Iris seems to lose all her memory just a few months after publishing her final book. This is one of the few occasions when you'll see a critic say that a film would be helped by a longer running time. As I have said before, although the story may have really happened that way, sometimes a subtle alteration of the truth is necessary to make it more believable from a cinematic point of view.

Despite the shortness of the film, however, director Eyre does take the time for some dreamlike sequences of swimming and bike riding, to show the times Iris and John spent together and how their experiences evolved, and how her love for water often softened the pain of her illness. The R rating may scare away some potential viewers if they think the film contains objectionable material, but this is a mistake; it is there primarily because there is some minor nudity by Winslet, portraying Iris's early love for skinny-dipping. Don't let the rating scare you away: this film should be seen by everyone who can, especially those over 50 or those who know or love someone who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, but also anyone who wants to witness the rare treasure such a collection of talent can produce. *****

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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