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Iris (Richard Eyre) 2001

The credits sequence of Iris is promising. The film begins underwater as we see novelist Iris Murdoch, both young (Kate Winslet) and old (Judi Dench) skinny-dipping with, John Bailey, her husband. The film’s language seems to be in touch with the eventual subject matter of the picture, which deals with Iris’ descent into Alzheimer’s disease. Is there a more appropriate way to convey the fluid nature of memory than though a dissolve? There seems to be a focus in these early moments on sensual and immediate pleasures, which places the sequence in stark contrast to the rest of the film, which occupies a more abstract, intellectual, and unfortunately clunky, plane. 

Much of Iris attempts to provide us with a vicarious thrill that we’re either seeing true bohemians (the young couple) or eccentrics (the old one). It’s almost pornographic the way that the film wants us to bathe in the free-spiritedness of the promiscuous young Iris or the clutter of the older couple. There’s a moment or two where a piece of trash becomes a fetish object for the heroine and that suggestion feels like a good deal of rubbish. The problem with a lot of these scenes is that the attempts to make us realize the visceral pleasures of casual sex or detachment from the world, but then expects us to pity Iris for liking such things. Her eventual slide into Alzheimer’s feels tragic because the story is told from her husband’s point of view. One imagines that Iris would be quite content to be oblivious to worldly concerns and live in the moment. 

Judging from the sparse bit of her point of view that the picture provides, however, one cannot imagine Ms. Murdoch approving of this picture. She seems to have little regard for conventionality, and this is a thoroughly conventional piece of work. The film’s rather trite sentimentality mostly stems from it taking the husband’s point of view, but much of the stuff that Iris herself says seems to be born out of a petulant antiestablishment angst instead of some true degree of profundity. Perhaps the performances, which feel merely adequate despite the cast, are to blame for the material’s flatness, but I believe there’s little that could be done with this material. For a script that’s always striving to make sure we understand how great a mind Iris had, it surely doesn’t paint a flattering picture. All in all Iris fails to enlighten us into either the tragedy of Alzheimer’s disease or the woman that it strikes. 


12 – 21 – 01 

Jeremy Heilman