Iris (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

 "Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light"

 .... Dylan Thomas


"I feel as if I'm sailing into darkness."

... Iris Murdoch, on the onset of Alzheimer's


Iris is the story of the noted author and Booker Prize winner, Iris Murdoch, who died about three years ago, after struggling some years with Alzheimer's disease. The story is based on two books about Iris (Iris and Her Friends: A Memoir of Memory and Desire, and Elegy for Iris ) by John Bayley, Murdoch's famous husband. The film was financed in part by the BBC.

The film moves between two time frames. In the earlier time, a feisty young Iris (Kate Winslet) goes through lovers of both sexes, and experiences various Bohemian adventures before settling with the conservative, stable Bayley. In the second part, Bayley helps the older Iris (Judy Dench) cope with her failing years. The two halves form a portrait of a resilient marriage between two good, strong, intelligent and devoted people.

I liked this deeply flawed movie for many reasons, not all of which are logical.

My mother, who was an accomplished woman by the standards of her time, a college graduate, a teacher, and an opera singer, was also an Alzheimer's victim. I wasn't really present to watch her descent. For the last decade of her life, my sister took care of her, and my dad did what he could, despite physical problems of his own. I lived around the world, in places like Sydney, Oslo, and Vienna, and for me she was mostly just a voice on the phone. The movie Iris let me see what I missed, and filled me with guilt and sadness, as well as admiration for my sister and father. I felt, at the same time, guilt that I had missed the closing chapter of her life, and great relief that I had not seen her like that, and then guilt again for feeling that relief.

I was lucky, you see. I am still able to remember my mom as the impressive woman she once was, without having to remember her as a burden. And I feel guilty for that luck. Guilty that I let other people face the problem without my help.

I was living in Oslo in the early 90's, and mom was still calling me once a week, and writing quite often, sending English-language puzzle books, and American snacks, and family photos. Then the letters stopped. The phone calls stopped from their direction. I called them once in a while, of course, and noticed that my mom was starting to make less sense each time. I visited home in the late 90's. My sister called my mom in from her bedroom.

sister: Mom. Greg is here.

mom: Greg who?

sister: Your son Greg

mom: I have a son?


The dying of the light.

I guess you can figure out how the visit went from there. She had been "out of it" for a few years by the time of that visit, and would die within a year, so she was then in the later stages of mental deterioration, and in a stage of physical decrepitude that I wasn't prepared for from phone conversations. Alzheimer's patients aren't very interested in dentists or hairstylists, nor are they especially welcome patients, and they normally live about a decade after the first diagnosis of their problem. I would not have recognized her if I had passed her on the street.

She did figure out who I was, but then asked me the same question about 30 times in a row, had no idea how many wives or children I had had, or what I had done during my life. I don't have to spell it out. You know the drill. She only perked to life when I sang some of the solos from her career. She practiced them so many times when I was a kid that I knew them by heart. Her eyes sparkled with recognition, then she sang along softly with me, her voice still smoother than mine, her ear still more acute. For some brief moments, her great talent defeated not only her disease, but even her age.

Then she was on her ship again, sailing back into darkness.

The movie is very subtle for a dread disease film. It is honest in its portrayal of the characters and their flaws. It is never rhetorical or cloying or ingratiating. It is a simple, unembellished story told with candor. The acting is remarkable. Four actors play two parts seamlessly, down to the voices, accents, and mannerisms, so that the time shifts are managed to perfection.

I said before that the film was deeply flawed. The reason is that this movie could be about anyone. It really has nothing whatever to say about Iris Murdoch. If you do not know now why she is a great writer or thinker, you will have no idea after this film is over. The script doesn't show her being brilliant. The film does not really even give many solid examples of her brilliance. We are left to assume it. Furthermore, there is a gaping flaw in the character development. It is extremely difficult if not impossible to ascertain how Murdoch chose Bayley as her lifelong companion. Bayley's recollections formed the spring whence this story flowed, and he was guilty of excessive modesty. There are times which call for modesty and self-deprecation, but in this script those characteristics turned out to be liabilities because they created a credibility problem.

If you don't know anything about Ms. Murdoch, here is what the movie is about:

A sexy much-desired woman, who is pursued by nearly everyone of both sexes, ends up marrying a complete dweeb who is obviously hygienically challenged. There is no way to understand why she chose such a complete loser, but it's a damned good thing that she did, because he tended to her faithfully decades later when Alzheimer's took away her mental and physical allure, and all of her other friends deserted her.

Can you see what is missing here?

1. There must be a damned good reason why she chose Bayley. It would have been wise to clear out Bayley's posturing narrative modesty and demonstrate it. By all accounts, Bayley was a brilliant literary critic, extraordinarily well-read on English and Russian literature, and a witty man. You would not know that after watching this film. You'd think he was a faithful lap dog who was grateful for Murdoch's table scraps.

2. Why is Murdoch such an important figure in English letters? The film assumes that you know. Warren Spahn once said that he couldn't figure out why people thought Casey Stengel was so smart, because he was the only guy to play for Casey Stengel before and after Casey became a genius, but not during. (The Boston Braves pre-Yankees, and the Mets post-Yankees). This film gives you the Warren Spahn look at Iris Murdoch. It shows you Murdoch before she was a genius and after, but not during.


Kate Winslet shows all possible body parts as the young Murdoch, in an extended swimming and apres-swimming scene, and is later topless in a brief sex scene.

Hugh Bonneville shows his buns very briefly in a swim scene.

Penelope Wilton shows one breast in a shower scene

DVD info from Amazon

  • widescreen, 1.85 ratio, anamorphically enhanced

  • no meaningful features

Because of those flaws, this simple, touching movie is not great, but merely good. When I was a kid, mothers used to give their children cod liver oil. We took it, not because we wanted to, but because we were told it was good for us. Iris is the cod liver oil of movies. It is not a movie that you really want to see, but one that you should, because it's good for you. The portrayal of Murdoch's deterioration is painstakingly accurate, and the love of her husband is touching.


Iris is one of the most heartbreaking love stories I have ever seen. As the film starts, we see a mature Iris Murdoch, and her husband John Bayley, at a university lecture, where we learn that she is "Dame Iris," a noted novelist, and a lecturer, and that her husband is also prominent. Shortly thereafter, as she is trying to complete what was to be her last novel, she begins to show the symptoms of the disease which would take her life, after years of suffering. So, shortly after the credits, we know that she is going to die at the end of the film of Alzheimer's. As a matter of fact, if we read the box, we already know that. The rest of the film alternates between the heart-wrenching progress of the disease and its effects on her, her husband, and their circle of friends, and the story of how they met and fell in love.
The reason she chose Bayley for her partner was really the entire point of the film. Although they don't hit you over the head with the answer, and don't even have an "ah ha" moment where everything becomes clear, the answer is there, and it is a simple one. He was in her circle of friends, and was intellectually adequate to be a companion, but was socially challenged and not very experienced. What she came to realize was that he accepted her completely and without judgment. With this complete acceptance, she could trust him with her most private thoughts. In a pivotal scene, she lets him read her first novel, something nobody other than her publisher had been allowed to do, and then states rather matter-of-factly that they should have sex. This is the moment he went from one of her companions to her lifetime partner.

We find out through the course of the movie that she chose wisely, as he did, in fact, stick by her long after most would have had her institutionalized. Shortly before the end, when she has had nearly no lucid moments in a long while, her eyes suddenly came alive, and she said, "I love you." Clearly, this is to emphasize the point that the story is really about love, not a terrible disease, or the life of a famous novelist/philosopher.

I think the film would be an easier watch if you see it as a docudrama about Alzheimer's. Certainly the effects of the disease on her are disturbing, all the more so because of who she once was. The portrayal of this disease was so accurate that the Alzheimer's Association gave their entertainment award to Miramax for this film. In the introduction at the award ceremony, they talked about what a frank portrayal of the disease it was, and then said, "and it isn't even about Alzheimer's ... it is a love story." In accepting the award, Jim Broadbent shared that he had lost his own mother to Alzheimer's, and offered a personal anecdote. Shortly before her death, when she hadn't been coherent for months, his sister said, "Mom, we just love you too much." The lights came on for the last time, and she answered, "You can't love someone too much." Seeing it as a love story, I was devastated by what her husband was going through. She, clearly, was the light of his life. His love was strong enough to stick by her to the end, but his source of strength, Iris, was mostly not there. Only Iris knows if she was suffering in the later stages of the disease, but Bayley had all, or at least most, of his faculties.

The film is great, but it won't please those hoping for a biopic, and is emotionally a very hard film to watch.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three stars. Roger Ebert 2/4, James Berardinelli 3.5/4, 4/5, BBC 4/5, Apollo 82/100

  • General UK consensus: three stars. Daily Mail 6/10, Daily Telegraph 8/10,Independent 7/10, The Guardian 9/10, The Times 7/10, Evening Standard 9/10, The Express 9/10, The Mirror 6/10

  • Although Iris was nominated for three acting Oscars, the film  was otherwise shut out. The BAFTA's also nominated it for best adapted screenplay and best British film.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDB readers say 7.5/10, Guardian voters 7.9/10.
  • with their dollars ... arthouse distribution in the USA, minimal gross. It has grossed about $2 million in the UK. Budget: $5.5 million.


IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+ (both reviewers). Two thumbs up. Scoop: A good movie. Tuna:  If this is your kind of film, don't miss it.

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