Iris

on December 14, 2001 by Wade Major
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   Based on professor John Bayley's memoirs of his late wife, famed Anglo-Irish novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, Miramax's “Iris” is a polished, reverential approach to a figure whose ultimately tragic life is probably not best served by either polish or reverence. Comparisons to other recent pictures like “Shine” and “Hilary and Jackie” are inevitable and unlikely to reflect favorably on the more selective, checkered plotting of “Iris.”

   Much like “Shine,” “Iris” tells Murdoch's life in bookends--skipping to and fro between the early years, when the bisexual Murdoch was a charismatic and confident young intellectual and the awkward, socially inept Bayley her unlikely suitor, and the twilight years in the late 1990s when Bayley nursed her as she fell victim Alzheimer's. The contrast between their peculiar courtship and those woebegone later years is a tricky task that is sometimes effective, but too often heavy-handed and disjointed. What enables the structure to work better than it should are the performances of four superbly cast actors--Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville as the pair in youth, and Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent in old age. The attempt to tell a cohesive story through such terminal points, however, is fraught with problems, rendering the film fragmented to the point of seeming pointlessly episodic. So much time is devoted to Iris' illness, in fact, that audiences may think Iris more famous for being sick than for being a writer.

   The actors naturally labor as best they can, generating greater thematic and emotional continuity between the disparate pieces than should be possible given the script's limitations. But in the end, the attempts are more noble than successful. One cannot overlook the fact that those pivotal years between courtship and fame are nowhere to be found. Whereas “Shine” sidestepped this problem with the fact of its subject's institutionalization, “Iris” inexplicably bypasses a crucial period of progress, both professionally and personally. One is left with the impression that Murdoch and Bayley were simply people who were once young, then grew old and died.

   On a positive note, the film does feature a lovely, subdued score by James Horner--the Oscar-winning composer's first substantively original effort in nearly two decades. Starring Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville. Directed by Richard Eyre. Written by Richard Eyre and Charles Wood. Produced by Robert Fox and Scott Rudin. A Miramax release. Drama. Rated R for sexuality/nudity and some language. Running time: 90 min

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