Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Mind's Eye: "Iris" (2001)

A beautifully acted film, "Iris" will hit home, especially with anyone who has lost a family member to Alzheimer's Disease.

The film is split into two different stories, whose scenes interchange throughout. Iris Murdoch (Judi Dench) is a respected novelist in England, living with her English professor husband, John Bayley (Jim Broadbent). She goes on speaking engagements, with her husband by her side. She begins to have lapses in thought, unable to use her beloved mastery of language to finish novels, then conversations, then sentences, then words. Her deterioration is sudden, rapid, and sad, taking their obvious toll on Iris as well as her husband, who gets more and more frustrated with every one of Iris' setbacks.

Young Iris (Kate Winslet) is a free spirit at Oxford who has just written her first novel, which has been accepted for publication. She meets the awkward, almost bumbling Young John (Hugh Bonneville), and something about him attracts her, but she continues to see other men (and possibly at least one woman). Despite her friends' opinions of this strange man, Iris begins to open up to him, letting him into her literary world. The two form a bond that we see lasts through Iris' battle with her illness.

I am not familiar with Bayley or Murdoch's work, but the film has certainly peaked my interest. Richard Eyre directs the film brilliantly, intercutting the two stories without getting mawkish or sentimental about whatever is triggering the memories. Watching Bayley and Murdoch's house deteriorate along with Iris' mind is an interesting touch. While some of the situations may come off as movie-of-the-week type moments, they are acted with such professionalism and talent, I can easily overlook them. I am not saying Iris did not wander off, or eventually forget her own husband, I just feel those scenes could have been presented in a new way.

I have never seen two actors play one character so well as Broadbent and Bonneville as John. I sometimes could not tell they were two different people. Likewise with Iris and John's friend Janet, played younger by Juliet Aubrey and older by Penelope Wilton. The stricken couple's reaction to a major character's death and funeral are sad disasters that not many normal people could have handled.

Judi Dench and Kate Winslet do not look enough alike to get the same reaction out of me that Bonneville and Broadbent did, but that does not lessen the effectiveness of their performances. Dench does a fantastic job, going from intellectual to mute disease victim so fast, no one would know how to react to something this tragic. Winslet is also good as the free spirit, but my main problem was with the earlier life scenes.

I love films and books about writers and the writing process, and I would have liked to see more background on Iris Murdoch and what she wrote. I am not saying her suffering was lessened because I did not get to know her as well, but more hints into her personal life and writing would have been rewarding. The film runs a mere ninety minutes, when another half hour could have been added easily. When was the last time you wished a film could be lengthened?

My grandfather, a philosophy professor, died of Alzheimer's and assorted complications from a series of strokes. I did not see him in the last six years of his life, I want to remember him taking me fishing at the muddy pond on the little bit of land he owned, or sitting in his study at his home and looking through encyclopedias. I helped him move his books from his office at Baylor University to the back of his two car garage, noticing titles that I would never understand on a subject I could not fathom. We all want to have a moment back, a few seconds to tell people we have lost how we feel and how much we miss them. Alzheimer's is a horrible disease, because the person is physically there, but not mentally. It is a disgusting disorder, and I would not wish it on my worst enemy.

"Iris"' pain is raw. The directing and performances are strong. The film makers should have let us get to know Iris and John better, to more fully appreciate his loss and literature's loss. I will probably hunt down Bayley's books, to find out more on the subjects. I do recommend the film. (* * * *) out of five stars.