Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Amongst the literary classes Iris Murdoch is a name to conjure with. For the rest of the world, ignorant of her intellectual prowess and novel-writing skills, she will be seen as a little old lady, living in a cluttered house with a bumbling old fool, slowly losing her marbles. To ease the unmitigated despair, there are memory flashes of her years at Oxford, when she raced her bike through trees, swam naked in the river and enjoyed sophisticated sex with a catalogue of randy undergraduates.

After her death, husband John Bayley wrote books about their life together, particularly the final passage when her vibrant, inquisitive mind became clouded by Alzheimer's disease. Some might think he was cashing in on private grief. It is from these books that Charles Wood and Richard Eyre have constructed a screenplay.

Copy picture

The film suffers from its pedigree. Bayley is a professor. Murdoch was one of Britain's most revered novelists. Wood is a playwright, who wrote the script for The Charge Of The Light Brigade. Eyre is the best known theatre director after Peter Hall in England, who ran The National for years to universal acclaim. How could they go wrong?

To begin with, Eyre has no cinematic understanding. Hall had none, either, when he tried to make movies. Iris must be the least interesting visual experience since Derek Jarman's Blue. Apart from an understandable fascination with Kate Winslet's body, Eyre does nothing with the camera except place it in line with an actor.

The film opens with Murdoch giving a speech. This is followed shortly afterwards by Murdoch giving a lecture. These scenes must have been included to emphasise her way with words. Visually, they are reminiscent of the BBC coverage of an award ceremony. Soon afterwards Murdoch is being interviewed by Joan Bakewell in a TV studio and she falters, loses the thread, and you know what's coming: "I feel as if I am sailing into darkness."

Continuity is constantly interrupted by flashbacks to student Iris (Winslet), who has clever things to say and seems to hang around with a stuttering lapdog, called John (Hugh Bonneville), while being courted by smart young men, who make certain the champagne is on ice and candles lit at the dining table. There is no explanation why she ends up marrying the lapdog, or anything to do with her literary work. She talks of having written a novel, but you don't know what it's called, or how it was received.

The performances, on the other hand, are exceptional. Judi Dench (Iris) has the ability to convey intelligence without arrogance and bemusement without sentimentality. It is a magnificent piece of acting. Jim Broadbent (older John) is equally fine. He avoids every pitfall in the cranky codger's corridor and creates something personal to fit this particularly wacky professor. Winslet is less stretched. She has to behave like a blue stocking, be daring out of doors and snap the boys down with scintillating one-liners.

Reviewed on: 20 Jan 2002
Share this with others on...
Iris packshot
Biopic of the novelist who succumbed to Alzheimer's.
Amazon link

Director: Richard Eyre

Writer: Charles Wood, Richard Eyre, based on Iris: A Memoir and Elegy For Iris by John Bayley

Starring: Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet, Hugh Bonneville, Penelope Wilton, Samuel West

Year: 2001

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


Search database: