In 1999 Dame Iris Murdoch, one of Britain’s most prominent modern literary figures, died of Alzheimer’s disease. Iris, directed by Richard Eyre, who is best known for his work on the English stage, is a story based on two books written by John Bayley, Murdoch’s husband of 40-plus years, and published after her death.
Iris the film examines two themes, happiness and love. These themes also dominated the writing and thinking of Iris Murdoch herself. However, this is not a story about Iris Murdoch as such, but about John Bayley’s memories of the relationship he had with her. Eyre uses two parallel stories featuring the young Iris, played exquisitely by the gorgeous Kate Winslet, and the young John Bayley, well acted by Hugh Bonneville, and the older Iris (Judi Dench) and the older John (Jim Broadbent). Even though the film focuses on Murdoch’s marriage it doesn’t shy away from glimpses into her lesbian affairs. [Iris] was bisexual and had lots of affairs with men and women at the same time, Winslet recently told an interviewer.
The constant switching between stories makes the film a bit jumpy and detracts from the dramatic weight of the film as a whole. Nevertheless, this is more than compensated for by the sustained outstanding performances of all the cast. Jim Broadbent won both the 2002 Golden Globe and the National Board of Review award for Best Supporting Actor for his truly brilliant performance in the complex and challenging role of the elder John Bayley, a man 20 years his senior.
This is a very moving film that walks a fine line but never descends into schmaltzy sentimentality. The script and dialogue ensure a raw honesty very rarely seen in films in these days. This is not light entertainment either but certainly worthwhile.