A Writer’s Review of Iris
Release Date: December 14, 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Starring: Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet, Hugh Bonneville
Written by: Richard Eyre and Charles Wood, based on Elegy for Iris, and Iris: A Memoir, by John Bayley
Directed by: Richard Eyre
Spoiler Level: Low to High (fear not…read on).
Greeting, hacks and scribblers. It’s been nigh onto a year since my last entry in Scribblers on Celluloid. 2015 was a strange, hard, bastard of a year. I may well document the monumental changes that occurred, but that’s for later. For now, let us return to SoC with a film that positively wrecked me, personally, emotionally, intellectually.
I give you Iris…
The Whiz-Bang Synopsis:
True story of the lifelong romance between novelist Iris Murdoch and her husband John Bayley, from their student days through her battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
The Slightly More Informative Synopsis:
Based on a pair of memoirs by her husband John Bayley, this biographical portrait of writer Iris Murdoch stars both Judi Dench and Kate Winslet as the philosophical author at different stages of her life. When the young Iris (Winslet) meets fellow student Bayley (Hugh Bonneville) at Oxford, he’s a naïve virgin easily flummoxed by her libertine spirit, arch personality, and obvious artistic talent. Decades later, little has changed as the couple (now played by Dench and Jim Broadbent) keeps house, with John doting on his more famous wife. When Iris begins experiencing forgetfulness and dementia, however, the ever-doltish but devoted John struggles with hopelessness and frustration to become her caretaker, as his wife’s mind deteriorates from the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.
My Take on Things (or why this movie made the cut):
Iris opens with an underwater scene…Kate Winslet swimming nude. I knew then I was going to watch this movie all the way through, and the writerly element could go hang. A few minutes later we flash forward to Iris Murdoch as an old woman (played brilliantly by Dame Judi Dench) as she speaks to a group about the importance of education, thusly:
“Education doesn’t make you happy, nor does freedom. We don’t become happy just because we’re free, if we are, or because we’ve been educated, if we have, but because education may be the means by which we realize we are happy. It opens our eyes, our ears…tells us where delights are lurking…convinces us that there is only one freedom of any importance whatsoever… that of the mind…and gives us the assurance, the confidence, to walk the path our mind—our educated mind—offers.”
I found myself leaning forward, eager to hear more of what Iris Murdoch had to say on matters of life and love and the power of the mind.
Every instinct makes me simply want to tell you to go watch the movie. Right now. Nothing I can say will do it justice; no amount of rumination can give the barest hint of the film’s power. Watch it, absorb it, then wash the tears from your face and watch it again.
But, you’re all here, and it seems I have the floor. So then…
Rotten Tomatoes rated Iris as Certified Fresh, with a positive score of 79%. That’s a pretty good rating for RT, but I couldn’t help but wonder: what in Heaven’s name were the other 21% thinking? Did they catch that opening skinny dip sequence and think they were watching porn, only to have their hopes dashed by repeated insight into the human condition? I suspect those who rated the movie poorly are those not in touch (or afraid of) their feelings. Because make no mistake: Iris is one hell of a tear-jerker. See up above where I note the spoiler level as Low to High? It’s because I am going to tell you how it ends (High) but it’s no surprise to anyone (Low).
Iris dies, folks. But this is no more surprise than telling you that Titanic ends with a sinking ship. Both Titanic and Iris are based on true events (and both share Kate Winslet’s boobs with the world…but those, errr that, need not detain us).
Ahem. Iris Murdoch’s story is a matter of record. And we know in the first twenty minutes of the film that Alzheimer’s—the writer’s greatest fear—has found Iris. It’s important to know and accept this going in, because the power of the film is in its flashbacks and flash-forwards. We know what’s coming, the knowledge clogs our throats and hearts with its inevitability, so we treasure every leap back to the Iris that lived so fully in the moment.
This is a beautiful film in every respect; if there was an off note anywhere I missed it. Both Kate Winslet and Judi Dench are as pitch-perfect as everyone knows them to be. But Jim Broadbent’s performance as Iris’s husband, John Bayley, left me stunned. He won the Oscar for his performance, and to say it was well-deserved is an understatement. And the performance of Hugh Bonneville as the younger John Bayley was equally stand-out (I swear, I felt like they had actually somehow filmed Broadbent thirty years prior—he was that convincing).
Iris succeeds on every level I can think of. But for writers—for those of us who struggle on even our better days to put the words down in the best possible order—Iris is a horror story.
The Writerly Element:
Iris is based on John Bayley’s memoirs of his wife, famed Irish novelist and philosopher Dame Jean Iris Murdoch. The writerly element in the film is a given because we are treated to an inside peek (however brief) of this amazing writer’s mind.
A quote from Iris (the person not the film):
“Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one’s luck.”
Dame Iris seemed to perpetually leak nuggets like this. There is a moment early on where a young Iris is having fun at John’s expense after he has choked on a sip of wine. Iris is making a point that we don’t have to try to swallow the right way, it just happens. But what she says is noteworthy for anyone attempting to put words to paper:
“The best thing to do is just hang on and trust the body.”
Later we see a clip of an interview from Iris’s younger years, in which she shares this glorious insight into the writing condition:
“Everybody has thoughts they want to conceal. People have obsessions and fears and passions, which they won’t admit to. I think any character is interesting and has extremes. It’s a novelist’s privilege to see how odd everyone is.”
Isn’t that gorgeous? The novelist’s privilege. Yes.
There is also much to be gleaned from close inspection of the relationship between John and Iris, especially in their younger years. Iris was wild and untamed, a perfect contrast to John’s bumbling nerdiness. But John was enamored with her brilliance, more than well aware of the power of her writer’s mind:
Young John: “Iris has got more than one world going on inside that head. A secret world. I’m the only friend that knows of her secret world. It’s like living in a fairy story. I’m the young man in love with a beautiful maiden who disappears into an unknown and mysterious world every now and again.”
Contrast that moment with a heart-wrenching scene when the elderly John is reading Pride and Prejudice to Iris as she sits in a fogged-out stupor. But then her eyes clear ever so slightly, her lips begin to move and she says: “I…wrote.” John brightens and says, “Yes, my darling, my clever cat, you wrote books!” And Iris stutters out, “Books…I…wrote.” John tells her she wrote novels, wonderful novels. Tears brimming in her eyes, Iris repeats, “I…wrote.” And John, with a pitiful hope that she might be rebounding, says, “Such things you wrote. Special things. Secret things. Do you know many secrets now, Iris?”
I could go on. The writerly element is everywhere in this film because it chronicles the life of a writer. You won’t have to look far, but I would suggest doing so anyway—because this movie is trying to tell us something, something big. For now, go with this bit of prophetic exchange between a young John and Iris:
John: “You love words, don’t you?”
Iris: “If one doesn’t have words, how does one think?”
Because we need to face our fears. We all die. Somewhere at the end of this long and complex game—maybe from accident or sudden illness, maybe it’s simply our time—we will cash in our chips. We all know it’s coming.
But that’s not the fear, at least not for me. The real terror, the keep-me-awake-at-night, oozing-shambling-gibbering-horror-in-the-closet, is dementia. It terrifies me. I’ve written about crossing over that threshold into madness many times, before I even had conscious knowledge of my own personal fear of it.
For the writer—for the one who truly cares about the language and beauty and music of writing—is there a greater dread than losing our ability to think and remember and make connections? Imagine you are writing—a letter, a story, whatever—and then imagine the feeling of panic at being unable to remember the spelling of even the most common word. Your mind betrays you. We see this happen as Iris is writing in longhand, and she says, “We all worry about going mad, don’t we? How would we know…those of us who live in our minds, anyway? Other people will tell us. Would they, John?”
“How will we know…?” “Those of us who live in our minds…”
Would others see us slipping away? Would they tell us? Would we be able to process the knowledge?
How hard and fast would we write our stories if we knew that tomorrow we would be robbed of cognitive thought?
It sends a chill up the spine.
In the midst of Iris’s decline, she manages to finish her last novel. And she has this to say in a tragic moment of clarity:
“Just keep working, keep talking, keep the words coming. I shall come off like a deprived animal if I can’t write…be like a starved dog.”
Every writer knows this feeling all too well. Writing is hard; not writing is harder. To have the ability stripped away through a failure of our mind to cooperate…that is hell.
Overall Rating: 5 out of 5 Quills
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what this movie is saying, or what it’s about, because it will likely hit everyone differently, scraping at old wounds we had almost forgotten. Since it is based on Bayley’s memoirs of his true love, it seems to be an effort to finally capture her. From their early days on into the latter years, John Bayley was always trying to catch Iris. Whether she was leading him a merry chase as they pedaled their bicycles down country roads, or disappearing into the unknown and unknowable landscape of dementia (Iris: “I feel as if I am sailing into darkness.”), she was always just beyond his grasp.
John: “Iris, w-wait for me!”
Iris: “Just keep tight hold of me, and it’ll be all right!”
John: “You won’t keep still!”
Iris: “I can’t keep still!”
John: “I can’t catch up with you!”
Or maybe it is simply a statement on the frailty and impermanence of life in contrast to Art itself. James the Apostle called human life nothing more than a vapor, a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Maybe, when all is said and done, we are only what we leave behind. Some spark ignites our creative selves into animation, we flare up into flame, some longer and brighter than others, then the flame sputters into nothing. Our lasting hope is that if we have burned bright—if we have set others ablaze with our words and craft—our Art will live on.
“As I hear the sweet lark sing in the clear air of the day,
Dear thoughts are in my mind, and my soul soars, enchanted,
As I hear the sweet lark sing in the clear air of the day,
For a tender beaming smile to my hope has been granted,
And tomorrow he shall hear all my fond heart can say…”