"I feel as if I'm sailing into darkness," Judi Dench says about halfway into Iris, which tries to take us with her but finally has to turn back. Iris is Iris Murdoch, the English novelist and moral philosopher whose final years were clouded by Alzheimer's. Murdoch's husband, John Bayley, wrote a pair of memoirs about their time together, including the cloudy days. And although some critics felt he used the books to even the score with a wife who'd always outshone him, I found the first book, Elegy for Iris, to be just the opposite ' a loving portrait of what Shakespeare would have called a marriage of true minds. Bayley and Murdoch were no Heathcliff and Catherine. On the contrary, they were a couple of bookworms who spent most of their time buried in their work. But Elegy for Iris suggests that Murdoch was all the woman Bayley ever wanted, even after she set sail for the dark side of the moon.
Like autism, Alzheimer's is a tricky thing to put on the screen ' monotonous if allowed to follow its own idiosyncratic course. But director Richard Eyre and co-writer Charles Wood get around this problem by juxtaposing Murdoch's descent into forgetfulness with Bayley's own memories of when they first met, at Oxford, some four decades before. Here, Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville take over the roles from Dench and Jim Broadbent. And one couldn't ask for a better match-up of performers and performances. Like Dench's Iris, Winslet's has a calm, yet steely, resolve. She's one of those people who knows exactly what she wants and systematically goes about getting it. And Winslet and Dench must have compared notes, because each has achieved the same balance between self-sufficiency and interest in the surrounding world. Their Iris is a character rarely seen outside a movie starring Vanessa Redgrave.
Jim Broadbent's Bayley is a different kettle of fish altogether. With his pink face, wispy white hair and beaming smile, he could be the host of a children's show. And that voice! It's at once so gentle, so nerdy, so Mr. Magoo on laughing gas. Bayley must actually talk this way; there's no other possible justification for doing it. And Broadbent somehow manages to put the whole thing over. When Bayley and Murdoch met, he was a stuttering boob who was enraptured by the mere sight and sound of her. And 40 years later, he was still a stuttering boob who was enraptured by the mere sight and sound of her. What did she see in him? Perhaps a safe harbor where she could drop anchor and go for a swim. The movie shows them paddling around in a river near their home, which they often did, and the water is like a metaphor for Iris' stream of consciousness, engulfing her. Then, hallucinating, she sees her younger self swimming toward her.
Eyre, who used to run the Royal National Theatre, thinks cinematically. And by blending the present and the past, cutting from one to the other at the speed of thought, he overwhelms us with the brevity of life and the constancy of Murdoch and Bayley's affection for each other. Not that Murdoch's affection for Bayley wasn't open to question. She never stopped having affairs with other men and women, which Bayley always endured but never quite accepted. And so he can perhaps be forgiven his resentment when Murdoch, deep into Alzheimer's, is finally his and his alone. Iris is otherwise a lesson in how to care for an Alzheimer's patient. Bayley speaks to her in the private language they've always used with each other, and he even tries to get her to write down her thoughts, such as they are, in a small spiral notebook. Instead, she rips out individual pages and places a stone on each one to hold it in place.
What a cruel irony, to have a movie made from the only portion of your life when you were at a loss for words. But there's such dignity in Dench's performance that none of this matters. Dench, always a flinty presence onscreen, softens the edges this time around, lets her face go slack, then snaps to attention when Iris is feeling anxious. Even when Iris still has her wits about her, though, Dench cloaks her in solitude ' there but not there. "Nobody less narcissistic than Iris can be imagined," Bayley wrote in Elegy for Iris. And one of the joys of Iris is noticing Murdoch and Bayley's supreme indifference to decorum or dÃcor. Their home, according to a New York Times reporter who dropped by to interview them, was "shockingly untidy." And yet they'd still be there, scribbling away, if Iris hadn't been called elsewhere. "When do we leave?" she asked Bayley over and over in the last stages of her illness. Alas, she was already gone.