The novels of Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) are like good chocolate–try one or two and you’ll inevitably crave more. She wrote some two dozen of them over three decades from the 1950s to the 1980s. Fans back then waited impatiently for each new one to arrive at the bookstores; many, if not all are still in print today. These are serious works, rooted in Murdoch’s studies in philosophy. Yet, while she tackled weighty themes of ethics and religion, she also created wonderfully idiosyncratic characters, often placed them in bizarre situations, and she made their peculiar or outrageous behaviors seem perfectly reasonable under the circumstances.
Richard Eyre’s film, Iris, wisely makes no attempt to delve into Murdoch’s literary oeuvre or creative process. (It would be difficult to name a film that has explored successfully the inner workings of a writer; painters and musicians are a lot easier to realize on screen.) That is not what this film is about. Rather, it is a memoir, principally of Murdoch’s declining years, when, ironically, Alzheimer’s disease stole away her keen and creative mind before it killed her. Based on two books by her husband, John Bayley, it’s a film about their marriage, their love, and the life they lived together. Flashbacks are used to sketch in the background of their original meeting and courtship, but only enough to illuminate the emotional place in which they found themselves as Murdoch’s mind began to slip away.
The young Murdoch, played with spirit and intelligence by Kate Winslet (Titanic, Quills)was confident and witty as well as brilliant. She was something of a sexual adventuress, having affairs with both men and women. Yet it was John Bayley (Hugh Bonneville) she chose to marry–a sexually inexperienced, donnish stammerer. And it became Bayley’s painful position to know that his wife continued her sexually free ways after their marriage. She assures him, "You know more about me than anyone on Earth. You are my world." He adored her and opted to remain in the marriage, for all the distress that Murdoch’s extra-curricular activities caused him.
Judi Dench continues her remarkable string of performances (Chocolat, Mrs. Brown)in what may be her best to date as the older Iris. Her depiction of the gradual decline into Alzheimer’s is heart-wrenching, the persona of Murdoch gradually fading into the oblivion of impaired memory, but never quite completely wiped away. Jim Broadbent (Moulin Rouge, Topsy-Turvy) as the older Bayley is equally effective as he moves from denial to acceptance of Murdoch’s condition, always tender and caring as he gradually loses, but never stops loving, his life’s companion. With irony he reveals his feelings to her, though she is past understanding what he says–now that all the others are gone, he has her to himself, but (only for a moment of frustration and despair) now he doesn’t want her.
A variety of scenes give a sense of the joy in this marriage–word play as they shop for groceries, recurring scenes of both the young and the older couple swimming, Bayley’s adoration as he listens to Murdoch speak at a dinner. As sad as it is to watch the inexorable decline of a brilliant mind, Iris is warm and positive as a testament to the loyalty and unconditional love that Bayley bestowed upon Murdoch; he made real her theoretical constructs about being and doing good.