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[whitespace] 'Iris'
Iris In Bloom: The young Iris Murdoch (Kate Winslet), cozies up to scholar John Bayley (Hugh Bonneville).

Decline and Fall

'Iris' follows a case of Alzheimer's, with lovely flashbacks

By Richard von Busack

THE FILM Iris is a tenderly made, sad and often hard-nosed biography of the late novelist Iris Murdoch. She was a pricklier and more reactionary character than this film gives her credit for; hers was a ruthless kind of mind that went beyond ordinary feminism straight into the Gothic. She and a few writers like her longed not for equal rights but for the power to frighten--to be witches.

To give an idea of what Alzheimer's did to her fine mind, director Richard Eyre flashes back to the novelist's younger years. Kate Winslet plays Murdoch as a shaggy-haired blonde hoyden cutting a swath through 1950s Oxford. Winslet's Murdoch is casually promiscuous but careful to register the effect that promiscuity has on the people who meet her. She's a golden girl, given to nude swimming. And she enchants and mystifies the turtlish scholar John Bayley (Hugh Bonneville), whose memoirs are the source for the film. The attraction between them is something of a mystery; Bayley is a stammerer, bald even as a young man. The conversations between them don't signify any meeting of the minds, just a kind of mutual sympathy.

These episodes color in the past of the couple we get to know in age. Judi Dench plays the elder Murdoch losing her memory and her dignity; Jim Broadbent plays the senior Bayley. To Bayley and Eyre's credit, the decline is unsentimentalized. Iris is one of the few films that stint neither the ravages of Alzheimer's (as when the demented Murdoch pees on the carpet) nor the squalor of an intellectual's flat (one good joke has a policeman appalled at the whiskey bottles and unwashed dishes).

Still, the entertainment-loving flesh prefers Winslet's girlish wickedness; Winslet is as close as the movie gets to the devilish spirit of the novelist one encounters in works like A Severed Head and The Black Prince. While the film is mostly just a twist on the familiar disease-movie, Winslet makes it almost worth recommending. The English newspaper The Guardian put it wittily: from this movie, you don't know what Murdoch was like between the bonking and the going bonkers. You never get a sense of what Murdoch's writings are like. The most extended citation of her work comes from an acceptance speech. What one gets here is the freshness of Winslet and the balance of kindness and acidity in Dench. Ultimately, the missing element of Murdoch's work may be what keeps Iris only very admirable and not wrenching.

Iris (R; 90 min.), directed by Richard Eyre, written by Eyre and Charles Wood, based on the memoirs by John Bayley, photographed by Roger Pratt and starring Judi Dench, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent and Hugh Bonneville, plays at selected theaters.

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From the March 7-13, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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