Main cast: Judi Dench (Iris Murdoch), Kate Winslet (Young Iris), Jim Broadbent (John Bayley), Hugh Bonneville (Young John), Penelope Wilton (Janet Stone), Juliet Aubrey (Young Janet), Timothy West (Maurice), and Samuel West (Young Maurice)
Director: Richard Eyre
Iris is a beautiful, elegant, and stripped back story of late author Iris Murdoch’s life with her husband John Bayley. Yeah, yeah, A Beautiful Mind won the 2001 Oscar for best picture, what-freaking-ever, but I still say this one was robbed.
This movie alternates gracefully and even seamlessly between scenes of a younger John Bayley who falls with love with the fiery aspiring author Iris and later those when an elderly Iris is stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. It is often a painful movie to follow, especially considering how everyone loves Iris for her vision, creativity, and philosophy, and here she is, losing the very faculties that is her greatest asset.
But this is more John Bayley’s story than Iris’s. Perhaps it’s not surprising, for Iris is largely adapted from the man’s two memoirs about his late wife. And what a man John Bayley is, played with devastating effectiveness by both Jim Broadbent and Hugh Bonneville. A stuttering and socially awkward man who adores Iris for every one of her strength as well as her weaknesses, he can never catch up with her spirited nature, yet there he remains, always following and forever devoted. Kate Winslet – yes, dear, she gets naked a lot in here (what else is new?) – exudes the right amount of wit and fire to her character, and it is so easy to see why Bayley is besotted. And he remains so despite knowing some aspects of her that is less than pretty. To this movie’s credit, I can see why Iris is besotted in return. Puppy love devotion and that seat high up on the pedestal always do have some charm.
Even to the end, Bayley remains the steadfast husband. It’s touching, truly. But he’s not perfect or as patient as the mountains, though – there’s a heartbreaking scene where he lashes out at his wife, who doesn’t understand what he is saying, of course – only to break down because he is so choked up on emotions. He can’t hurt her without hurting himself.
Judi Dench portrays the elder Iris with easy dignity that remains even when Iris is at the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. She plays her role in an elegant low-key style. Older dames are never this cool or beautiful.
Simplicity is the key here, although some use of symbolism can be tad heavy at times, hence there is no grandiose final moments, no melodramatic outbursts, just a simple yet gripping and completely poignant story of a love that endures despite death and grief. It engages my emotions and never lets go even long after the credits have rolled.