Movie Review by Kris Griffiths
Starring: Judi Dench, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Bonneville, Samuel West
Director: Richard Eyre
Ever heard of Iris Murdoch? Neither have I… well obviously I have now after watching a film about her. Apparently one of ‘the most brilliant women in England’ according to the gushing press notes, Iris was an author and philosopher who churned out twenty-six novels before going mad and kicking the bucket only two years ago. Half the movie focuses on her slow surrender to Alzheimer’s disease whilst the other portrays through flashback sequences her young carefree life as an Oxford swot. It’s moving in places but ultimately rather pointless.
Kate Winslet plays the younger Iris – a bisexual, promiscuous beauty, who somehow falls in love with John Bayley, a stammering balding lecturer with relatively little experience in the ways of lurve. He becomes fascinated by her bohemian ways, constantly referring to the “unknown and mysterious world” that she always disappears into but always comes back from. This ominously foreshadows what is to become of Iris and their relationship together. We see nothing of her supposedly illustrious writing career but see the cracks starting to show when she appears on a BBC interview and keeps forgetting what the question is (Judi Dench plays the older Iris). Slowly but surely her mind begins to disintegrate: she forgets who the prime minister is, who the postman is and eventually forgets how to walk through doorways. The film simply plays out the coda of her existence, alternating scenes of her decaying life and relationship with John (played by Jim Broadbent – MOULIN ROUGE) with scenes of their earlier days together – the young couple falling in love and the old couple remaining in love to the very end.
It’s all very poignant stuff, not only witnessing a gifted woman losing her marbles but also the poor husband struggling to cope with the cruel reality of it all after so many years of devotion. He in turn embraces his wife then lashes out at her as the madness gradually rubs off onto him. Winslet is superb, as is Dench (despite sitting around staring vacantly for most of the film), but Broadbent steals the show as the stuttering grief-stricken husband. It’s also quite uncanny how he looks so similar to the younger John Bayley (played by Hugh Bonneville), making the transition to an older man look a lot more realistic than the shift from Kate Winslet to Judi Dench.
However, despite the excellent acting (and Kate shedding her clothes a few times), the film suffers from a choppy usage of flashbacks failing to adhere to any form of structure and leaving unexplained gaps all over the place. And despite admirably steering clear of heavy sentimentality, which it could easily have sunk into, it still doesn’t make ninety minutes of watching a woman go mad much of an entertaining cinematic experience. Thank god it was only ninety minutes.