Film biographies are tricky things. In a written biography, the author can explore the thought process, the moods, the intellect of the subject ands attempt to explain what made them interesting or great in their field. Film biographies essentially become a Cliff Notes version of the subject’s life. It would be impossible to accurately and intelligently depict a person’s entire life in a film, so the filmmakers have to depict an important period or an important series of events. The more memorable film biographies of the last few years have done this; “Man In The Moon” depicted a series of events, skipping around randomly, ending at the premiere of the TV show ‘Taxi’, “Ed Wood” depicted a very strange man’s road to become a film director. Both of these films, in addition to the third most memorable film biography of the last few years, were all written by the same team. They each cover a significant period of time in the subjects life.
“Iris”, directed by Richard Eyre and adapted from the bestselling memoirs of his wife, written by John Bayley, depicts two periods from the life of novelist Iris Murdoch. The first is when Iris and John met and the second is during the last years of her life, before she succumbed to Alzheimer’s.
The film contains two great performances. Judi Dench portrays Iris Murdoch at the end of her life and really makes the character believable. Even more interesting is the fact that her character has so few lines during this period. Most of her character is built with facial mannerisms and body movements. The other great performance belongs to Jim Broadbent. His portrayal of John Bayley is another great addition to his resume. Broadbent is, and probably always will be, a character actor, but he gives dignity to the meaning. Too unconventional to be a leading man, he continues to turn in one memorable performance after another. In his last three films, he steals virtually every scene he is in. His performance in “Topsy Turvy” was truly memorable, but his performance in “Moulin Rouge” was memorable, showy, grandiose and restrained all at the same time (difficult in any circumstance, but more so in such a frantic film). In “Iris”, he plays a character who is probably 20 years older than the actor but never seems to be acting. He is a man so completely and utterly in love with this woman that nothing else matters in the film.
The film is memorable in that it uses two very good actresses to portray Iris Murdoch. Kate Winslet portrays the novelist in her twenties, when she first met John Bayley. Unfortunately either the writing or the acting prevented me from caring about this character, so it was difficult for me to see why John Bayley was so in love with her, especially in the scenes with Dench and Broadbent. Watching the scenes with Dench and Broadbent became a strange experience. I enjoyed Dench’s performance immensely and loved watching Broadbent, but because I didn’t understand why he fell in love with the Winslet character, I didn’t believe in the relationship despite the strength of the acting. I hope that makes sense.
Also, the film seems to be constructed rather haphazardly. Cutting back and forth between the two time periods throughout the entire film, the film seems to lose its focus. Usually when a film cuts back and forth between two time periods the events in each time period are meant to emphasize the other. I didn’t see the correlation between the two in “Iris”. Yes, one period is when the two writers met and the other is at the end of their relationship, but that doesn’t seem strong enough.
I have never read an Iris Murdoch novel or the two books written by John Bayley and I still don’t know why Murdoch was considered so great. This is a fatal flaw in any biography. After watching “Ed Wood” and never seeing any of his actual films, I can recognize that he was a strange but extremely committed man. After watching “Man In The Moon”, I get a sense of Andy Kaufman’s strange comedic sensibilities. After watching “The People Vs. Larry Flynt”, I get a sense that Larry Flynt was also interested in fighting censorship, even if it may have been profit based. I don’t get a sense of what made Murdoch’s writing good, great, interesting or memorable. Why? Because we only hear her speak at two functions. Are these speeches related to her writing? We only see her struggle with writing one book, but we don’t hear any of the writing or find out about the book.
The film is being released by Miramax for a week, before the end of the year, to qualify for Oscars. They probably believe that the film is worthy of Oscar nominations and at least two of the actors probably should get a nomination. But because the film doesn't explain anything about what makes Murdoch's life or work great, I can't recommend it. Thew film actually fails miserably on that note.
“Iris” is a well-intentioned, but unsuccessful film biography of a writer that I still know very little about.