Kate Winslet and Judi Dench give wondrously in-sync performances as the young and the old Iris Murdoch in "Iris," an inspired, invoking and inventive biography of one of Britain's premiere 20th Century authors.
With seemingly little effort, both actresses bear a remarkable resemblance to their character in her various stages of life -- as do the two actors (Hugh Bonneville and Jim Broadbent, respectively) who play Murdoch's fidgety and unstrung but unconditionally devoted husband, John Bayley.
But it's the way they play two ends of the same psyche, and the way director Richard Eyre ties those two ends inexorably together with interwoven parallel narratives, that makes this film transcend the biopic genre.
Using the technique to bind two eras and two performances to each other, Eyre opens the narrative with twin scenes of Murdoch and Bayley at a countryside swimming hole in both the 1950s and the 1990s. The scene is brilliant in its simplicity, speaking volumes about the consistency of modest joys in Murdoch's life while immediately presenting the audience with an intimate and inviting emotional hook.
Winslet and Dench both glow with their subject's enthusiastic pedantry, confidence and unaffected femininity (Murdoch dressed very ladylike but rarely did anything with her makeup and rather unkempt hair). The movie is a story of love sprung from intellect, and there is a uniformly artless romantic magic between these two actresses and their respective co-stars -- not a soft-focus melodrama affair, but simply two eccentrics awkwardly, warmly in love.
"Perhaps it's time we made love," is Iris's clumsy idea of seduction. "If we were married, we could be doing this nearly all the time," is John's way of proposing, post coitus.
"Iris" is adapted from Bayley's biography of his wife, and Eyre infuses the film with the man's undying adoration and compassion for his wife without getting sappy or maudlin -- even after Murdoch's zealously sharp and insatiably philosophical mind becomes tragically ravaged by the effects of Alzheimer's disease.
The picture's two-track storytelling becomes intentionally, compassionately and symbolically fragmented with the onset of the affliction, which Dench plays so very realistically. Murdoch's dispirited and immense frustration is clouded but discernible behind her gradually withdrawing, scared and childlike eyes. As her mind begins to degenerate, Dench does a beautiful job of showing that frustration and desperation before it becomes trapped behind those eyes.
"I feel as if I'm sailing into darkness," She says as she writes feverishly to finish one last book before it's too late.
However, it's Broadbent's turn as Bayley that is the picture's pivotal performance. He captures with amazing grace the tenderness that keeps Bayley going as Murdoch's faithful caretaker, even as his heart is breaking and his own frustration is boiling over. John and Iris fell in love with each other's minds, and while the love remains, he knows every time he looks at her that the intellectual sparks that gave birth to it are gone forever.
As the young John Bayley, Bonneville ("Mansfield Park," "Notting Hill") is extraordinary as well. Not only does he make the bookish, nervous young academic a sympathetic and appealing figure, but he recreates Broadbent's physical mannerisms with such precision that you can't help but wonder at times if he isn't Broadbent made up to look 40 years younger somehow.
The one area in which "Iris" lets the audience down is in not delving more deeply into Murdoch's writing. I knew almost nothing about her as an author before the movie, and while I feel I got to know her as a person, the only information of note I learned about her novels is that they "embrace freedom and love" -- or so she says in an interview in one of Dench's early scenes.
Run time: 91 mins
In Theaters: Friday 18th January 2002
Box Office USA: $5.4M
Distributed by: Miramax Films
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 79%
Fresh: 86 Rotten: 23
IMDB: 7.1 / 10
Director: Richard Eyre
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