Iris: Richard Eyre’s Biopic of Iris Murdoch, Starring Judi Dench and Kate Winslet

Viewers expecting to get illuminating insights about the literary genius, eccentric philosophy, and complex sexuality of Iris Murdoch, the British celeb of letters who died in 1999, will be disappointed with Richard Eyre’s Iris, a rambling film, almost made-to-order for the dictates of the small screen.

As co-written by Eyre and Charles Wood, the film begins ambitiously with a chronicle of the young, vibrant Iris (splendidly played by Kate Winslet), but then rapidly escalates into a mildly engaging story of the older Iris (Judi Dench) and her painful struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease in the final years of her life.

A solid cast of two sets of players, Winslet and Hugh Bonneville, and Dench and Jim Broadbent, who embody the characters in different phases of their lives, elevates this small-scale British product only a notch or two above TV-Movie-of-the-Week. Hoping to gain Oscar nominations for three of the cast members, Dench, Winslet, and Broadbent, whose performance was singled out last week by the National Board of Film, Miramax opens the film in US theaters on Dec 14, several weeks before its UK engagement.

Neither Winslet nor Dench look like the real-life Iris, who died at the age of 80, and hence was older by over a decade than Dench. However, a more successful effort has been made to match the two actresses’ physical appearance, speech, and behavioral mannerisms, which helps a lot since the strategy chosen by helmer Eyre is an excessively tiresome cross-cutting between the women in two distinct periods of her life.

What Eyre and Wood’s script, based on John Bayley’s two volumes of memoirs (Iris: A Memoir and Elegy for Iris), has not succeeded in doing is capture the spirit of the rebellious novelist, whose bohemian lifestyle was ahead of the times (1940s and 1950s), in which she developed as a woman, artist, and philosopher. Indeed, the filmmakers have disappointingly opted for a sentimental portrait of an sacrificial love story and shallow anatomy of what must have been a problematic if rewarding marriage between Iris and husband-literary critic Bayley for half a century.

In the press notes, Eyre expresses his hope “that people can appreciate this film without bringing special baggage on board.” But is it possible After all, Iris was a successful novelist and distinguished philosopher who wrote and lecture on the nature of good and evil, freedom of expression, propagating unbridled individualism as well as less restrictive matrimony, particularly in the areas of creativity and sexuality.

The yarn begins well by introducing the two Irises, the younger one on bike at Oxford’s all-women Somersville College, and the older as an accomplished literary figure and media celeb. However, not much is made of the facts that Iris later worked as a civil servant in WWII, and that she embarked on a literary career at a rather mature age, 35, with her first novel, Under the Net, which was unconventional (for a female writer) in its first-person male narration.

In broad strokes, that are constantly interrupted by images of the declining health of the aging femme, viewers follow Iris’s awkward courtship with Bayley, then a university lecturer and aspiring literary critic, a romance that culminated in marriage, in 1956. In an interesting gender reversal, it’s Iris who’s the free spirit, caught by Bayley in compromising positions with other men. Aroused by curiosity and slight jealousy, Bayley’s screen hero can hardly bring himself to confront his beloved Iris with questions about her idiosyncratic “lifestyle”, not to speak of her bi-sexuality, an orientation of which most of Iris’s colleagues and friends knew about.

What inspired Iris’s literary muse and what accounted for her prolific output, estimated at 25 novels, including the high-regarded The Bell, A Severed Head, The Unicorn, A Word Child, novels that on the surface conform to the psychological detective format, but boast fascinating subtexts with complex and sophisticated sexual relationships, bizarre incidents, macabre moments, and whimsical humor; some of her journal entries were notorious for their droll observations. To answer those questions, viewers are urged to read one of several biographies about Iris.

The film acknowledges Iris’s last novel, Jackson’s Dilemma, published in 1996, less than a year before she was diagnosed with the painful Alzheimer, and three years before her death. But no clues are provided as to how the marriage survived all those years, other than the notion of a grand, enduring, and selfless love that knew no boundaries.

By necessity, momentous events from Iris’s life have been compressed or transposed and characters conflated, but the end result is far from satisfying. The last reel comes across as a touching chronicle of a woman who falls victim of a nasty disease that not only affects her, but also–and mostly–her beloved Bayley. Furthermore, the film barely touches on the greatest irony of Iris’s rapidly diminishing health, namely, the crucial shift in her relationship with Bayley, from being the dominant partner, looked up to and deferred to, to an utterly dependent and hapless woman.

This Iris falls in between the two genres: Neither a biography nor fiction, it contains dialogue that’s lifted verbatim out of Bayley’s subjective accounts, but also text that’s invented to solicit the viewers’ sympathy and tears. As much as I resented the schlocky sentimentalism and facile manipulation of “On Golden Pond,” in which Henry Fonda portrayed a retired professor scared of losing is faculties, the 1981 picture, which won acting Oscars for Fonda and Katharine Hepburn as America’s aged sweethearts, was more heart-breaking than Iris. Regrettably, Iris’s own observation, “Real life is so much odder than any book,” can easily be applied to Iris the movie.

Judi Dench, who’s rapidly becoming Miramax’s most reliable pro, renders a dignified, solid performance, though the two shining turns are by Winslet and particularly Broadbent, likely to be recognized at Oscars’ time by the Acting Branch.