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Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2002
In sickness and in health
By KAORI SHOJI
If you're an Iris Murdoch fan, "Iris" may be too painful for viewing: The formidable Dame Iris, a major figure of 20th-century English literature, is hardly addressed. Instead we see the youthful Iris, on the brink of literary fame, and the elder Iris, besieged by Alzheimer's, her incredibly imaginative brain hacked to bits. What of her many years of triumph, the seemingly eternal wellspring of creativity that flowed from her pen? For that, it's better to just hit her novels, produced at the pace of almost one a year. Based on the memoir "Iris: A Memoir and Elegy Written for Iris," written by her husband John Bayley, "Iris" is not a biographical account of a great author but a history of a fascinating marital relationship.
When Iris (Kate Winslet) and John (Hugh Bonneville) met in 1953, they were both teaching at Oxford. She was six years older, a brilliant and fascinating woman who had half the faculty and visiting scholars in heated pursuit; he was an awkward, bumbling innocent, hanging around her in open-mouthed adoration. She treated him as a favorite brother and made no secret of the succession of lovers that passed through her apartment until one day, she coolly informed him, "I think it's time we made love." When he told her that he didn't quite know how, she told him not to worry because she did, very well.
This incident symbolized their relationship for the next 40 years. She always led the dance without missing a step and he could only follow -- trying but failing, to anticipate her next move.
Fast forward to late 1996, when Iris (Judi Dench) has just written what would be her last novel, "Jackson's Dilemma." She is already in the first stages of Alzheimer's, when incidents of forgetfulness start piling up, embarrassing her in public. On the surface however, Iris is just the same to her loving John (Jim Broadbent): clear of vision, sharp of wit and unfailingly brilliant. But when she collapses during an interview at the BBC, they both realize her need for medical attention. The subsequent diagnosis seals their fate: John will eventually lose the wife he has known and treasured throughout the years, England will lose one of its greatest writers, and Iris will lose all traces of her personality and identity. But the most tragic (or perhaps merciful) part of Alzheimer's is that she herself is oblivious of this loss.
Suddenly, John must shoulder the burden of caring for Iris and still function as an Oxford professor and literary critic. Their house, never known for orderliness, becomes a hovel of filth and squalor. Newspapers are strewn all over the living room to cope with Iris' incontinence and the stench in the bathroom is such that a visiting policewoman must first hold her breath, then hurry out.
In the midst of despair and confusion, John alternates between sparks of tenderness and moments of unbearable irritation. Especially wrenching is a scene when John screams at Iris how no one wants her anymore, least of all himself. ("But I'm stuck with you!") Uncomprehending, Iris blinks, then turns away.
What surfaces in the book and is also faithfully reconstructed by director Richard Eyre, is John's dogged pursuit of a woman whom he felt was never truly his. Though a gifted writer and critic himself, John never quite stepped out of the shadows of Iris' fame and in their private lives, his wife remained an intricate and mystifying puzzle. And now Alzheimer's had taken the always elusive Iris to a far more distant place, impossible to follow. Eyre dwells long and earnestly on her illness (apparently, he had nursed his own mother through the same) and for anyone with family members of the same fate, parts of the film could prove extremely therapeutic.
Dench's interpretation of the role is perceptive and insightful. While some critics have complained that there was little for her to do except go around with a blank stare, there were scenes when you could almost swear that the lucid Iris was struggling to surface above the stiff, heavy woman, plodding wordlessly on the streets. The contrast of Dench's Iris with Winslet as the belle of Oxford is so effective, it hurts. As the young Iris and John bicycle along the wooded lanes, he calls out to her to stop and she joyfully replies "Never!" and adds she is like Prometheus and he must love her, no matter what.
This, of course, John did. The fact that both the book and the movie dwell so much on the last two years of John and Iris' life together perhaps stresses how much he strove to carry out her request -- and that if she was too ill to know it, the world should at least be called upon to witness.