Iris Movie Review

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In the refined and sobering drama Iris, we witness a loving but unconventional relationship between a strangely elegant couple -- English critic John Bayley and his Alzheimer's-stricken, novelist wife Iris Murdoch. Writer-director Richard Eyre, who wrote the script with Charles Wood based on Bayley's memoirs Iris: A Memoir and Elegy for Iris, delivers an amazingly touching portrait of resilient and everlasting passion between two eccentric creative forces who have contributed to the literary world immensely. Iris is an enchanting and finely-acted personal drama that manages to absorb the pleasures and pain of an undying spirit of togetherness. Expressionistic and resoundingly involving, Eyre's thought-provoking film is perceptively engaging.

Eyre does a terrific job in showing us the deterioration of a brilliant-minded woman in Iris Murdoch. It is always frustrating to witness anybody's decline in health, but it must be particularly awful for a talented author with an impeccable series of written work to her name. The film shows us the two phases of Iris's life -- as a free-spirited young woman in 1950's Oxford, England and as an aged, sickly soul trying to survive her last days in the 1990s while her husband tends to her needs. Titanic heroine Kate Winslet plays the youngish and energetic Iris while Oscar-winning actress Judi Dench portrays her ailing years.

As the youthful Iris, Winslet artfully shows us the spunky comfort of her Oxford days as she shares the exuberance of the era. Her world is filled with the exploratory idealism of books and the bohemian experimentation of courting lovers of both sexes. One day, she meets a dashing 29-year old Oxford lecturer named John Bayley (Hugh Bonneville). He's younger than Iris and less experienced in the lovemaking department, and when Iris details her torrid love affairs to the virginal suitor he becomes both overwhelmed and intrigued by her romantic encounters. Nevertheless, Iris assures John that he is indeed the center of her universe.

The union of Iris Murdoch and John Bayley is indeed a complex one. Bayley has observed his companion in writing as being "a beautiful maiden who disappears into an unknown and mysterious world every now and again... but who always comes back." No doubt that Bayley's description of his unpredictable and beloved Iris is a poetic precursor of what's to come, and sure enough, her behavior begins to take a toll on John as the film cleverly hints at her pending disease.

What's most effective about Iris Murdoch is that we never get a real glimpse as to what this woman is really all about. It sounds frustrating but it is really fascinating to see her as a colorful yet bewildering intellectual. The film stalls a bit, though, when we focus upon the older Iris. Dench brings a dignified twist to the role, and Eyre is smart not to make his drama too much of a celluloid Hallmark card. But eventually, Iris is reduced to watching Teletubbies like a child, and it comes off as a sentimental nudge.

Still, the richness of the film remains in the skillful direction of this rousing, charming personal drama, and Winslet is fabulous as the young Iris, who exudes so much energy as the nascent novelist. Overall, Iris is a stylish production that flows with radiance. Roger Pratt's cinematography is vibrantly crisp, and the storyline about a high-spirited woman being restrained by her constant affliction is profoundly unsparing.

Unfortunately, the Iris DVD is somewhat tepid, its only extras being the usual canned making-of short and a couple of Alzheimer's Syndrome public service announcements. Pretty thin for an Oscar-winning film and far less than expected.

Iris eyes a smiling.

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Iris Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: R, 2001

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