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Iris

Directed by Richard Eyre — 2001, UK, 90 minutes, color

IN BRIEF, a biographical film about novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, with an extraordinary performance by Judi Dench.

Review

Iris, the biographical film about novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, is well-intentioned but unsatisfying, with the major exception of Judi Dench’s shattering performance in the title role. The film is beautifully designed and shot, and it sincerely tries to dramatize the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, but the generic script reveals nothing of substance about Murdoch.

It was co-written by director Richard Eyre (best known for directing British theatre and TV movies) and Charles Wood (co-author of the 1965 Beatles picture, Help!). They use an unconventional structure, constantly cutting back and forth between, respectively, young and elderly Murdoch. But what they present is ultimately a conventional story of a typically “wild” Oxford co-ed (effectively portrayed by Kate Winslet of Heavenly Creatures and Titanic) and a feisty old lady succumbing to a disease.

Here is just one example of what Iris is missing. In a brief scene between young Murdoch and her suitor, literary scholar John Bayley (about whom we learn nothing except that he stutters endearingly as both a young man, played by Hugh Bonneville, and as an elderly man, played by Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent), he asks if she is a lesbian. Cut to a close-up of Winslet smiling enigmatically, taking a slow drag on her cigarette. Cut to the next scene. Issue raised, issue dropped.

What Iris’s script lacks in depth is, in part, compensated for in Judi Dench’s complex and profoundly moving performance, the greatest of her career. (She has appeared in almost 60 films, including A Room With a View, Shakespeare in Love, where she gave an Oscar-winning turn as Queen Elizabeth, and the recent James Bond movies, in which she plays “M.”) Judi Dench’s eyes reveal more about the mind and spirit of Murdoch than anything in the screenplay. There is a fiercely humanistic glow as she lectures in the film’s opening scene on freedom of the mind as the essential basis for happiness. You believe that Dench’s Murdoch could have written a work as expansive and subtle as The Bell (published 1958), Compare that to her increasingly glazed look as Alzheimer’s takes its unrelenting toll. A heartbreaking performance.

The biographical film may be the most treacherous genre, since we expect to understand something about the connections between an actual person’s life and their achievements. There have been some great “biopix,” ranging in style from director Werner Herzog’s visionary masterpiece, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), about a 16th century conquistador in Peru, to the best straightforward biography I’ve seen, William Dieterle’s The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), and including such landmark works as Max Ophüls’ Lola Montes (1955), David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980). Each of those diverse films captures a full, living human being and their world, and does so through a unique dramatic and visual style. But a performance – even one as towering as Judi Dench’s in Iris – is not enough to sustain a film which refuses to explore its own subject.

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Reviewed September 9, 2002 / Revised October 26, 2020

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