Iris
dir. Richard Eyre
Opens Fri Feb 15 at Guild 45th.

Among the narratives of redemption, the struggle with disease has become one of the most strangely moralistic. The sufferer who conquers becomes a survivor, ostensibly through sheer grit and the will to live; or gallantly, innocently goes down. Few people, it seems, take Dylan Thomas' advice and rage, rage against the dying of the light.

To this theory, Alzheimer's disease forms the saddest corollary. Because the victim loses all self-awareness, she therefore remains unconscious of her putative triumph. This determined movement against typical narrative grain should make for a more interesting story; somehow Iris manages to fall into just about every trap it could have neatly--even intelligently--sidestepped.

In it, the brilliant British writer and philosopher Iris Murdoch, a woman who lives most decidedly in the world of ideas, succumbs to the dementia of Alzheimer's, "sailing into darkness" as she so rightly puts it. The story, as constructed by director Richard Eyre (who wrote the screenplay with Charles Wood, based on two memoirs by Murdoch's husband, John Bayley), flips back and forth between past and present, evidently mimicking the erratic thread that memory becomes in the hands of the disease. The lovely opening sequence sets up this gambit: a series of murky underwater shots of Murdoch and Bayley swimming among river weeds, now an old couple, gentle with each other; now an exuberant young couple, the girl naked and voluptuous, the boy in hot pursuit. These, of course, are the shadows of the mind, where things are nonlinear at the best of times (thanks to dreams, memories, déjà vu), when logic or sanity is abandoned.

Part of the pleasure of stories set up like this is seeing the traces of the old already present in the young; the particular pain of this story is seeing the young, vibrant, intelligent Iris entirely disappear. It's a tragedy for anyone, certainly, but infinitely compounded for a woman who prized language and thought above all. In Elegy for Iris, his first book about his wife's illness, Bayley wrote about this sad paradox, about how Murdoch's formidable intellect struggled against the one disease that precisely and thoroughly thwarts it. The philosopher can no longer philosophize.

But to understand, and really feel this sadness, it's necessary to know what kind of mind Murdoch was, and here Eyre shortchanges us. The director has said he wanted viewers to come to the movie "without bringing special baggage on board," that is, without having to know anything about the subject, but in so doing he turns an extraordinary story into an ordinary one.

Why can't artists understand that specific sadness is more potent than the generic? This is something that annoyed me more on reflection after I saw Iris than it did while I was watching it. Watching it is not without its comforts; it's exactly the kind of thing I love to stumble across on Sunday nights on public television, a guilty pleasure somewhat elevated by the British accents and quaint diction. What turns this film into something more suited to the small screen is relentless sentimentalization and lack of ambition, in a story about an ambitious woman without a sentimental bone in her body. Murdoch's writing has a definite dark streak that has been carefully excised from the film; her themes, we are told again and again, are love and "how to be good." Her happy, democratic promiscuousness, it is implied, is stilled when she decides to commit herself to Bayley (it was not), and her political life is not mentioned. Even Bayley's angry outburst--he's incensed with fate, but takes it out on Iris--is a trope, the saint's moment of doubting.

It's clear that the movie means to anchor itself on the presence of Dame Judi Dench, whose reputation is all but blameless. She's getting raves for this role, but I can't see that it's all that complex of a performance. I was more impressed with Kate Winslet as young Iris, although she hasn't been made nearly dowdy enough--even with a frizzy bowl cut, unflattering hemlines, and sensible shoes; her evident beauty despite these handicaps is the filmmaker's surrogate for Murdoch's inner beauty. But it's Jim Broadbent as John Bayley that you can't take your eyes off of: he's astounded to find himself in the stream of such a shift in power, having to be the one with superior language skills, the one who is deteriorating less quickly.

There's a great, fleeting moment near the end of the film, when Bayley gives Murdoch a ring he's bought at a pawnshop. In a flippant intellectual moment, she tells him she likes things that are eroded by time until they disappear--unwittingly, even callously predicting her future. On such moments are great movies made; such moments, despite the wealth of talent involved, Iris barely pauses to consider.

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