Iris is more a love story than a straight biopic of English novelist Iris Murdoch. It’s also about the crippling effect of Alzheimer’s disease.Director Richard Eyre, and co-writer Charles Wood, have adapted two books by Murdoch’s husband, John Bayley: Elegy for Iris and Iris: A Memoir. The film cuts back and forth between the blossoming love of Bayley (Hugh Bonneville) and Murdoch (Kate Winslet) at Oxford University in the 1950s, to its fruition: Bayley (Jim Broadbent) and Murdoch (Judi Dench), still together 40 years later. In the modern scenes, Bayley is caring for Murdoch as she slowly succumbs to Alzheimer’s.
The tour-de-force performances elevate Iris beyond a disease-of-the-week-telemovie. Bonneville plays the younger, painfully introverted Bayley, who circles Murdoch longingly at Oxford. He’s a convincing counterpart to Broadbent’s older incarnation of the character. Winslet plays the bohemian Murdoch with free-spirited charisma. Dench’s transformation from the secure, authoritative Murdoch to a bewildered and frightened woman is heartbreaking. The mutual passion of Murdoch and Bayley, both young and old, for words, writing and each other shines in the performances.
Eyre, who’s directed mostly in British television and theatre, has made Iris as a study of contrasts - between ages, and across time periods. The fragmentary script moves abruptly from past to present and reveals the story in snatches. It’s an appropriate device because it echoes the disruptive nature of Murdoch’s illness. Thankfully, Eyre avoids cheap sentimentality, and the film’s emotional peaks occur at odd moments - such as Dench telling Bayley “I love you” after they fall into a roadside ditch. Mention is made of Murdoch’s literary accomplishments (46 novels in all, as well as poetry and essays) and also what inspired Murdoch to write.
The theme of contrast is sustained by Gemma Jackson’s production design and Roger Pratt’s cinematography. The initially messy writers’ home becomes more chaotic as Bayley struggles to manage his wife’s illness. Pratt presents the youthful scenes in rich, deeply coloured tones and the present day in pallid greys.Iris is intimate, involving and deeply affecting.