Iris: a movie review

I’ve never written a movie review before. I don’t go to the cinema much. It was forbidden to us as children, and I never developed the love of it as an adult. But friends recommend films to me and sometimes give me DVDs to watch at home, and I almost always enjoy them more than I expected to. One of my colleagues in the sciences has given me several films, among them two dealing with Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer, the great Viennese pioneers in psychotherapy.

I’m more drawn to philosophy than to psychology, although I’m conscious of the close kinship between them. More interesting to me is the kinship between philosophy and literature. Perhaps that relationship is nowhere better articulated than in the writings of Iris Murdoch, who began her career as a philosophy tutor at Oxford and ended it by writing twenty-six novels. She was active during the years of my childhood, but I only became aware of her in my later years.

Although Irish, Iris Murdoch was brought to England as a small child and was assimilated into the intellectual life of London, Oxford and Cambridge. She was a brilliant, vivacious young woman who defied conventional British ideas about love and sex, having love affairs with men and women as it suited her. Her reading of Plato dominated her thinking and her teaching, and she wrote insightfully and articulately about her own passions, mostly love and goodness. She became a sufficiently distinguished literary personality to be dubbed Dame Iris, and her lectures and interviews were broadcast on the BBC. Some of these are available on YouTube now.

When I read a novel I look for three things: I want to go somewhere; I want to learn something; I want to be engaged (alright, entertained, if you must). I’ve read two of Iris Murdoch’s novels: The Sea, the Sea and The Bell. Both of them met all three of my requirements. I won’t rehearse the plots here. That information is easily available. I will say that these two books were worth the time and emotional energy I invested in them, and I have recommended them to others who I think will apprehend the wisdom and humor in them. I intend to read more of Murdoch’s novels, and I have two books of her philosophical writings on my desk.

But this is supposed to be a movie review, so let’s get to that. I have deliberately avoided reading any published reviews, and there must be many, as it was released in 2001 by BBC films, just a couple of years after Murdoch’s death. It runs ninety minutes. It’s rated R for some nudity and sex, which is done tastefully. I suspect that few people under seventeen would find the subject matter appealing anyhow. It’s not for the callow.

The casting is very strong. Many of the actors in the film I recognize from Downton Abbey and from other British films I’ve seen on PBS. Leading the cast is Dame Judi Dench, who plays the mature Iris. Dench’s portrayal of Murdoch as she descends into the darkness of Alzheimer’s disease is disturbing and moving. Playing a person losing the great mind that made her a celebrated intellectual must be a tall order. Much of it has to be done without words, the very thing that Iris most valued. Dench’s body language and facial expressions, and sometimes the absence of expression, draw one into the oblivion of the diseased mind. She does not scruple to become ugly.

Jim Broadbent won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Murdoch’s husband John Bayley, who wrote the book that inspired the film and served as a consultant on the movie. Bayley was professor of literature at Oxford and Murdoch’s long-suffering companion through the valley of the shadow of death. His admiration for her great mind and spirit are artfully conveyed by Broadbent. He helps us understand the suffering of the caregiver as well as that of the afflicted.

There really are two casts, the old couple and the young. Dench and Broadbent’s youthful counterparts are Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville, who played the perfect gentleman, Lord Grantham, in the Downton Abbey series. As the young John Bayley he is just the opposite: awkward and painfully naïve, brilliant and comically stupid, in stark contrast to the worldly and self assured Iris. The winsome Winslet we all know from Titanic, and she does not fail to seduce as the young Iris. Her nude swimming scenes are beautifully filmed under the murky waters of what I take to be the Cherwell River in Oxford. Winslet is sweetly appealing when she sings Irish folk songs unaccompanied but strong-willed and implacable when facing an adversary.

Iris’s friend Janet is played by Penelope Wilton, who took the role of Isobel Crawley in Downton Abbey. Her characterization of Iris’s sometime lover and lifelong friend is perfectly understated. Another of Iris’s lovers, Maurice, is played by father and son Samuel and Timothy West, a stroke of casting genius.

The film score, composed and conducted by James Horner, is as eloquent as Murdoch’s prose. Joshua Bell’s violin solos are expressively rendered without affectation. The music is a complement to the images, not a distraction.

The frequent shifts in time take some getting used to. The scenes from the early years are interspersed without transition, almost as stream of consciousness. The cinematography is good, true and beautiful, both indoors and out. There is much variety in what director Richard Eyre gives us to look at. The scenes shot near the water are especially engaging. The costumes do not call attention to themselves, but give a convincing impression of how the young couple and their friends dressed in the 1950s, and of the frump of their later years in the 1990s. The reconstruction of their ramshackle home has an odor of realism about it.

Perhaps that all sounds rather depressing, but I wouldn’t call this a depressing film, the deterioration and death of the protagonist notwithstanding. Love goes on after life is lost. That may sound metaphysical, but I think Iris would say it’s so. I know that John Bayley would. Seeing this movie makes me want to read his book Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch (1998). That means it is a film worth seeing, and I recommend it highly.

About Dr. Lawrence Sisk

Professor Emeritus of Music at Lewis University

2 thoughts on “Iris: a movie review

  1. Nancy Workman
    July 17, 2018 at 7:07 am

    Have read virtually all of her novels. Started years ago and read each as it was published.. When I heard of her declining mental health, I simply could not bring myself to see the film or read the memoir. I simply wanted to keep the image of her keen intelligence and compassion. Now that time has passed, I will go back and have a look at the film. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Dr. Lawrence Sisk
      December 3, 2018 at 4:43 pm

      Just now saw your comment, Nancy. Thanks for reading my blog. I wrote another one about Iris and The Green Knight.

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