Generally, movies about people dying of diseases are meant to be mildly comforting if not flat-out inspirational, testaments to the triumph of the human spirit even as the flesh is on the way out. If the person is famous, all the better, since we then have the pleasure of watching illness crack the noble carapace of celebrity. It’s an essentially dishonest genre, as full of fraudulent reassurances as a well-meaning but morally timid doctor.
Iris, the story of the late British novelist Iris Murdock’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease, manages for the most part to avoid the warm-and-fuzzy approach, though it’s not above the lure of nostalgia and the simplifying of an arduous struggle. Based on a memoir by Murdock’s loyal and, toward the end, impressively staunch husband, John Bayley, it’s also a love story whose pervading tone is one of civilized sadness.
The film is also hugely ironic, not in the small and flippant manner but in the large and rapacious one. Alzheimer’s comes, at first, slowly — a word is lost and then more words and then the ideas behind them — and then quickens as the connection to reality, built up and strengthened over many years, dissolves as the sufferer is unkindly ushered back to childhood, then infancy, then nothing. Like a lot of diseases, it’s less ignoble than unjust, an unearned punishment unheeding of time and place. In the case of Murdoch, her mind’s return to a state of tabula rasa seems especially cruel.
Murdoch wasn’t just a novelist, she was a prodigious novelist as well as a philosopher. Her 26 fictions are famously detailed examinations of complicated relationships (sometimes bafflingly so: Martin Amis, reviewing a nonfiction collection by another prodigious novelist, John Updike, gave him a sly but definite compliment when he wrote that he “even knows what’s going on in a novel by Iris Murdoch.”).
In real life, suffering is a great leveler. It can give even the most frivolous personalities an aura of seriousness. But in the realm of drama, there’s much more that’s rich and strange in the story of a lofty mind being bought down to the level where it’s capable of being engrossed by the Teletubbies (as Murdock is shown at one point), than there is in the sad plight of, say, your Aunt Tilly, who was a bit of a dim bulb to begin with.
The movie, ably if unremarkably directed by Richard Eyre, moves deftly back and forth from young Iris and John (Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville) at Oxford in the mid-’50s to the present-day couple (Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent) enduring their last months. Though both intellectuals — Bayley was also a writer, his most popular (if that’s the word) book before the Iris memoir being Tolstoy and the Novel — they were definitely an odd couple. As thirtysomethings during the flashbacks, Iris is energetic and socially adept, and with a voracious sexual life already behind her (only alluded to in the film), while Bayley is her stammering and inexperienced suitor.
Winslet, though much more of a conventional beauty than the real Iris, manages to convey a lot of the writer’s boyish charm, while Bonneville successfully walks the fine line between being comically inept and pitiable. Dench exudes the growing wariness of someone for whom life is becoming increasingly unfamiliar, but the most impressive acting turn here is by Broadbent, who disappears into the character of the befuddled Bayley, adoring Iris unconditionally while being moved to frustrated rage by her awful illness.
The film simplifies but it doesn’t cheat. It’s skimpy on Iris’ career — we know she’s been named a Dame, but how important a writer was she and why? — while boiling her philosophy down to some vague idea of “goodness” (and while a lot of philosophy can be so boiled, it doesn’t seem a worthy representation of the author of Sartre: Romantic Rationalist.) But it doesn’t back away from the basic tragedy here, even as it offers up distracting images of a nude Winslet immersed in the carefree (embryonic?) waters of her youth. It’s moving without dipping into the syrup of manipulation and one is grateful for its relative restraint.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Uptown Birmingham 8 (Old Woodward, S of Maple, Birmingham). Call 248-644-3456.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].