IRIS (2001) 

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Judi Dench
Jim Broadbent
Kate Winslet
Hugh Bonneville
Eleanor Bron
Angela Morant
Penelope Wilton

Richard Eyre



About Iris

Time: 90 mins.
Rating: R
Genre: Drama

Won Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Nominations for Best Actress (Dench) and Supporting Actress (Winslet).

Not being familiar with the details of Iris Murdoch's life, I was excited to learn more about this British literary icon. The casting of Dame Judi Dench and Kate Winslet, as Murdoch's older and younger selves, made me even more so. Though these wonderfully talented ladies, and their male costars Jim Broadbent and Hugh Bonneville, give miraculous performances, the essence of Iris is never clearly defined. It's rare to encounter a film that needs to be longer, but this is one of them. The focus of the tale is on the relationship between Iris and her husband John Bayley, how they met, married and are dealing, in the twilight of their years, with her encroaching Alzheimers. What's missing is her talent. The film touches on her brilliance with the written word and her views of personal freedom, but it's just not enough to illuminate why she became the sensation that she did. Why her being struck with Alzheimers is so much worse than anyone else.

As a story about the triumph of love to overcome any obstacle, this film works quite well. Broadbent gives a heartbreaking performance as a man struggling to hold onto the spirit of the woman he fell in love with. Once her mind is gone, he's left with aching doubts about their relationship, wondering whether he ever truly knew this secretive and dynamic woman at all. The intercutting flashbacks play like memories, giving a peak into the past when these events were initially unfolding, revealing the truth behind the answers the characters are seeking. These brief glances are vibrant and compelling, creating a world that seems fresh and alive, instead of distant and old. Since Iris' deterioration begins rather quickly, it's in the past that we get the best sense of who she is and what the disease is doing to her. Winslet and Dench are two sides of a coin. Inseparable, yet distinct. There's never any doubt they are embodying the same person.

"There is only one freedom of any importance, freedom of the mind."

The same goes for Bonneville and Broadbent. It's been said, they took on some of each other's mannerisms, so they could be more believable as the same man. Whatever, they did, it works beautifully. Broadbent is the heart of this film. His character achingly human as he tries to deal with a partner who can no longer think for herself. The disease devastates her mind, but ruins his soul. Dench puts in a nuanced turn, making you believe that despite all appearances the light is still on inside her mind. It's easy to go over-the-top with a role like this, but she keeps a tight rein on the character, never going for the showy "look at me moment." Bonneville and Winslet bring great chemistry and energy to the film. She is a fearless performer who surprises with every character she takes on. The personalities of Iris and John couldn't be more different, yet somehow they make you believe they truly belong together.

As the disease begins to take its' toll on their ability to live a normal life, I found myself yearning to know more about these people, what makes them tick, how they got to this place? These are questions left unanswered. Everything we understand about them is superficial. We are told both are successes in their fields, but not really shown anything to back it up. Iris gives a few speeches about her work and ideas, but it's just not enough to capture what this prolific novelist and freethinking philosopher had in her mind. What made her special and brilliant? To gain that information, I guess I will have to read her books. Regardless, IRIS is a gripping, honest story about life, death and what we do with the time in between. About how much we reveal and keep secret about ourselves. About how sometimes love is a choice, not a feeling. A powerful drama filled with amazing performances that makes you appreciate every healthy day a little bit more.

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