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'Iris' exposes Murdoch's descent into Alzheimer's

Friday, February 15, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Maybe Nancy Reagan has the right idea. She's fiercely protective of her husband, former President Ronald Reagan, and his descent into the darkness of Alzheimer's. The onetime first lady is not going to allow him to be photographed watching, say, a children's television show.


RATING: R for sexuality, nudity and some language.

STARRING: Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent.

DIRECTOR: Richard Eyre

WEB SITE: www.miramax.com/iris/



I don't know if the late philosopher and writer Iris Murdoch really did stare blankly at the "Teletubbies" on TV, but she is shown doing that in the movie "Iris." While I can admire its depiction of a four-decade love affair, its three Oscar-nominated performances (and a case could have been made for a fourth), its extraordinary match-up of characters young and old, and precise film editing, I do wonder what Iris Murdoch might have thought.

Perhaps she would applaud how the film refuses to sugarcoat what Alzheimer's does to a person once described as "the most brilliant woman in England." Perhaps she would delight in its explorations of her favorite themes: the nature of good and evil, freedom, sexuality and love. Perhaps she would revel in its portrait of enduring love in all its giddiness, glory, pain, frustration and tenderness.

"Iris," opening today at the Manor Theater, is based on the memoirs of John Bayley, a literary critic who was married to Murdoch for 43 years. Director and co-writer Richard Eyre says the film "is not a biography nor is it fiction, but occupies a poetic territory somewhere between the two."

It tells the story of the Dublin-born Murdoch, played in her younger years by Kate Winslet and in her middle and older years by Judi Dench. Both actresses, justifiably, have been nominated for Academy Awards, as has Jim Broadbent, who portrays Bayley as a middle-aged man and then a white-haired senior citizen. The fourth in the quartet is Hugh Bonneville, who is Bayley as a young man and shares Broadbent's occasional stammer, mannerisms and looks to an uncanny degree.

"Iris" moves between the past and the period leading up to her 1997 diagnosis with Alzheimer's and eventual death in February 1999. The film paints a portrait of young Iris as free-spirited, sexually adventurous, bright, confident and fun-loving. When she catches her high heel on a step after a dance, she gleefully slides down the stairs in her red dress -- laughing all the way. When young Iris and John go for a swim in the river, she is naked and he's in his underwear, although he later doffs his skivvies after he's shed some inhibitions.

The structure of the movie, like memory, is fluid. In exacting editing, the young Bayley opens a door in the past and the older Bayley walks away from a door in the present. Since we're watching two different sets of characters and times, there's never any confusion about where we are.

As Iris begins her slide into Alzheimer's she asks, "We worry about going mad, don't we? How would we know, those of us who live in our minds anyway?"

It's a slow erosion at first -- she puzzles over a word, she loses her train of thought during a TV interview and she can't immediately summon the name of the prime minister. John reminds the experts that words mean everything to her, but Alzheimer's makes no exception for the eloquent.

As Iris, Dench goes from appearing perplexed and mentally agitated to seeming lost or baffled, being stone-faced, angry looking, physically agitated and sporadically unable to control her impulses, as when she reaches for the wheel while her husband drives.

In a more low-key manner than Russell Crowe, who plays a schizophrenic in "A Beautiful Mind," Dench must convey the tangle and black holes in her mind. She is absolutely convincing in that, just as Broadbent is as her husband who nearly buckles under the weight of caring for Iris but refuses to cede the task. Their house in Oxfordshire goes from untidy to unhealthy disarray.

"Iris" is not a conventional tale, but then again neither was its subject. It's not an easy picture to watch at times, and moviegoers with a personal connection to Alzheimer's may find themselves blinking back tears. Iris eventually retreats into her own world, where all is lost except love.

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