In sickness and in health

February 15, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The union of thought and feeling becomes flesh and blood thanks to four brilliant performers in Iris.

This story of the marriage between British literary critic John Bayley and novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch is based in part on Bayley's twin memoirs: Elegy for Iris and Iris and Her Friends. These won acclaim for Bayley's tumbling depiction of Murdoch's descent into Alzheimer's disease. Director Richard Eyre and his co-writer, Charles Wood, put their own form on the material, and despite some lurches in the transfer, make it live on the screen.

Even those who've read and been touched by Bayley's books might not rush to see a film about a heroine falling into Alzheimer's and her husband caring for her until he starts to come apart himself. But the movie isn't just about the onset of senility - it's a memory play, both elegiac and playful, about the persistence of emotion.

Hugh Bonneville and Jim Broadbent as the young and old John Bayley, and Kate Winslet and Judi Dench as the young and old Iris Murdoch, enable audiences to understand and to feel the quirky passion that fuses the couple even when Iris is deteriorating. The immature and awkward academic with the stunned expression becomes a joyous shambles of a man; the stunning, unconventional young thinker and writer who shares herself with other women and men becomes his devoted partner - and clings to him for life.

Eyre and Wood's screenplay is not a seamless mixture of realism and reverie. At times, the way it segues from the couple's Alzheimer's-ridden present to their hopeful youth suggests that Iris herself is remembering things past.

Yet the filmmakers also have devised scenes that feel loose and real, like Bayley and the pre-Alzheimer's Murdoch joking about words as they jostle through a supermarket. The audience immediately sees that part of what bonds them is a sense of language at once comic and poetic - we get into the swing of their humorous asides about the meaning of, say, "whole grains." Once they reach the checkout girl, all she has to do is ask if they are "bagged for life" and we break out laughing.

Perilously but - mostly - successfully, Eyre and Wood use snatches of the characters' lives to dramatize or counterpoint the themes that Murdoch states baldly in the dialogue. These include the necessity of language to develop thought; the ability of education to make us realize when we are happy; and the existence of feelings that can't be fully communicated. If at times these stick out like topic sentences, they eventually unite and catalyze the drama.

The movie is about how the ferocity with which Iris and John live life sustains them as it ebbs. Even when Murdoch dips into the throes of dementia, there's something heroic as well as pitiable about her carrying notebooks and muttering "I wrote." And Bayley is both empathetic and valiant because he realizes it.

As a movie, Iris rests on four teams, really - Dench and Winslet, Broadbent and Bonneville, and each male-female partnership. Broadbent and Bonneville create an astoundingly unified impression of a single personality at different ages: a hopeful man, a silly man, and most of all a loving man, whose high-pitched stuttering tickles the ear like tragicomic music.

What unites Dench and Winslet is less personality than sensibility. Dench's Murdoch has a flinty strength and an unself-conscious glint in her eye. A Platonist who believes we're all trying to recover the knowledge of beauty and justice that we had at birth, she's also, in an Oxford way, been around. Winslet shows us Murdoch when she was still a Bohemian hungry for experience - and, more important, for a relationship founded on a belief in her partner's goodness. She tells Bayley to think of Proteus, and hold on to her. Winslet can live up to that name: She's equally - splendidly - changeable and transparent.

Near the end, after a horrible and terrifying day, when it seems that John can no longer bear up under the pressure, Iris says "I love you," and that simple statement is enough to keep John hoping for an infinity of days with her. At its best, the movie has the sharp clear poignancy of an old country air - and director Eyre is wise enough to provide one.

We first hear Dench sing the Irish folk song called "A Lark in the Clean Air" when Iris and John are honored at an Oxford fund-raiser. She delivers it as an unexpected gift to the audience; we experience it as an expression of her love for free and basic pleasures like bicycling or swimming in a river. She next murmurs it an hour later, reflexively, when Iris is thick with Alzheimer's - and it causes John to think back to the time he first heard her deliver the song, on a dare, in a pub.

There, as young Iris, Winslet sings it to John with the focused affection that will sustain their relationship. Anyone who hasn't fallen in love with Winslet at the movies before will now succumb helplessly to the purity of her voice and the beauty of her emotions. By then, we've grown to see that, for Murdoch, Bayley is the man of the lyrics, whose thoughts fill the singer's mind and whose "tender, beaming smile" is the answer to the singer's hopes.

The effect is shattering and elevating.

Iris

Starring Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet, Hugh Bonneville

Directed by Richard Eyre

Released by Miramax

Rated R (sexuality)

Running time 90 minutes

Sun score: *** 1/2

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