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Reading Between the Lines

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*Iris (R)
Miramax Films

Iris is a moving film about the destruction wrought by Alzheimer's disease. It is a portrait of a man who watches the woman he has loved for her feistiness and vitality lose all grounding in her former self. It is a partial lens into old age and old marriage, of illness and loss of dignity, of fear and of surrender.

It is less a film about Iris Murdoch, so don't go expecting to learn much about her life and writing.

The film is based on the memoir titled (in the U.S. publication) Elegy for Iris, by John Bayley. Bayley was Iris Murdoch's husband, now widower (Murdoch died in 1999), and an accomplished (though much overshadowed) critic and novelist in his own right. Murdoch, who wrote some 26 novels and was also a respected philosopher, suffered from Alzheimer's in her last years. As the memoir and film detail, one of the most respected minds to write in the English language ended up in a nursing home, fascinated by Teletubbies and unable to write a word.

The film is structured to tell of the couple's declining years -- the aged couple played by Dame Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent -- interspersed with long flashbacks detailing their early courtship, with Murdoch and Bayley played by Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville. Both sets of actors turn out fine performances. Bonneville is rather more like a kicked dog than Oxford-don-in-training, but his genial, slavering eagerness to follow Murdoch, especially to bed, is warm and appealing. Winslet is lithe and sexy, although more than a little annoying in her (or rather director Sir Richard Eyre's) use of nudity as Murdoch's major marker for personal freedom.

The acting honors, however, go to Broadbent and Dench, who each do an excellent job of showing life in its declining years. Dench is very credible as a woman terrified by what her mind is becoming: "I feel as though I'm sailing into darkness," she says to her husband. The actress' craggy wrinkles, usually held in impressive formation quick to respond to subtle command, slowly relax to show the vacantness, the darkness, descending upon her. Broadbent, by contrast, becomes more real, more animated as he becomes the center of his domestic drama. Finally he has this brilliant woman to himself, and, as he yells at her one night in terrible frustration, he no longer wants her. His struggles with sadness, frustration, fatigue and the indignities of old age are wonderfully writ upon his pudgy round face, and in a posture that would be ridiculous if it weren't so poignant.

Director Eyre is heavy on the cinematographic representation for Murdoch's illness, and if he overdoes the gray Englishness, the smeared light coming through the glass doors, the filtered sun through a muddy river, it is mostly forgivable: Iris' subtle palette of murky grayness is intriguing. When he departs from that palette to express some great symbolism, it feels rather more like being hit between the eyes, but he mostly abstains from such obviousness.

The biggest disappointment for admirers of Iris Murdoch is likely to be how little the film is about the writer or her sharp-minded, exciting novels, and how much it is simply about old age and marriage and domesticity. And her husband. Iris, it turns out, is mostly about John, just as, of course, was the memoir upon which it was based. To find a telling portrait of a marriage, almost any marriage, wounded by Alzheimer's, go to see Iris. To find the real Iris Murdoch, go to the library.

-- Andrea Lucard

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