Alzheimer’s isn’t the sexiest subject in the world, so you can almost forgive Richard Eyre for trying to sauce up Iris (now in general release) by opening with a lingering shot of Kate Winslet’s boobs wobbling underwater. (Does she have a full frontal nudity requirement inked into all her contracts?) The scene resurfaces numerous times throughout this biopic of writer Iris Murdoch; it’s the visual representative of her happy, reckless youth, and also a reminder of the memories that are being extinguished from Murdoch’s diseased brain with every passing day. (While Winslet pirouettes like a nude water nymph, Murdoch’s nerdy lover John Bayley, played by Hugh Bonneville, keeps his saggy white drawers on, but it’s probably just as well.)
Iris plays on the universal dread of losing one’s mind—and aging in general—by heavy-handedly flashing back and forward between the 30-year-old Murdoch and Bayley and the elderly Murdoch (Judi Dench) and Bayley (Jim Broadbent). An image of young Iris in the lake morphs into old Iris in the same lake, and so on. This seesawing structure is far too schematic to convey the random discombobulation of the Alzheimer’s patient. More problematically, it leaves out huge gaps of Murdoch’s life—the whole center of it really, when she published all of her important books. She was a writing machine, producing 25 books in 40 years, and her fiction is full of erotic games, religion, and moralism. Iris only gestures vaguely at this, mostly via awkward scenes of Murdoch pontificating on the importance of language and love. Sure, it’s hard to capture an intellectual’s complex philosophy in 100 minutes, but if you’re not going to try, why not just toss a less famous Alzheimer’s victim’s story onto the screen?
The movie frames Murdoch as a proto-feminist heroine: independent, brilliant, and sexually adventurous. (Bayley titters nervously when she hints at her lesbian affairs.) “Best thing is to hold on and trust the body,” she advises him breathily. Winslet plays Iris as a headstrong glamour girl with pudding bowl hair; Dench imbues her beatific, vacant gaze with subliminal confusion and panic. Meanwhile, Broadbent is equally great at looking dotty and doting; he fully develops Bonneville’s blushing, quivery-faced tenderness. Everything gels when the camera zooms in on the couple in old age doddering together at the supermarket or around their cluttered, squalid Oxford house.
Iris is largely based on Bayley’s Elegy for Iris, a memoir published just before Murdoch’s death that idealized her as a secretive, dignified genius, only to undercut this by exposing her descent into indignity: watching Teletubbies, following Bayley around the house like an overgrown toddler. He wrote in the book: “I am struck by the almost eerie resemblance between the amnesia of the present and the tranquil indifference of the past.” In one of the movie’s most touching scenes, Bayley finally allows himself to rage at Iris, at her affairs and her secrecy. Some critics wondered if Elegy for Iris was an act of revenge or reverence. The film, like the book, leaves behind a sad and sour image: of an indomitable woman gradually infantilized by glitches in her brain chemistry, and the man who finally is allowed to take custody of her.