- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 16, 2002

"Iris," a stirring but also exasperating attempt at unorthodox biographical portraiture, is timed to take advantage of the Academy Award nominations for 2001.
Three of the four principal actors are Oscar finalists: Judi Dench for best actress, Jim Broadbent for best supporting actor and Kate Winslet for best supporting actress.
Booked locally at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle, the movie, about the late English novelist Iris Murdoch and her husband, John Bayley, should justify additional venues within a matter of weeks in a market of people as well-read as those in the Washington area.
The film's format frustrates because it shifts back and forth between episodes set in the middle 1950s and episodes in the late 1990s. Perhaps "Iris" isolates the sort of subject that could be better served by a quality miniseries, with entire episodes devoted to individual chapters of the couple's lives.
Miss Dench and Miss Winslet are the elderly and youthful incarnations of Mrs. Murdoch, who died in 1999 at age 79. Mr. Broadbent and Hugh Bonneville likewise play the younger and older Mr. Bayley, a literary critic, professor and man of letters at Oxford University, where Mrs. Murdoch also taught.
Mr. Bonneville's admirers are likely to feel that he deserves as much recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as the three other actors. He appears to be the most accomplished masquerader in the cast as he shifts from a shy, awkward, smitten young Oxford don of the 1950s to his subsequent appearances in the story.
Richard Eyre, who spent a decade as artistic director of the Royal National Theatre in London, and screenwriter Charles Wood interweave a haunting set of impressions of the literary couple. The source material is a pair of memoirs by Mr. Bayley. The one I have read, "Elegy for Iris," is a slippery proposition in certain respects. Although a poignant recollection of a marriage and indispensable to the adapters for the wrenching episodes that deal with the Bayleys' ordeal as Mrs. Murdoch is stricken with Alzheimer's disease a few years before her death the book also begs a lot of questions.
Evidently, this enduring union required considerable tolerance on the husband's part when his wife was adulterous (sometimes bisexually). Nonetheless, Mr. Bayley can be detected settling a few scores.
The filmmakers hazily suggest Mrs. Murdoch's infidelities and amorous misadventures rather than depict them graphically. The very presence of Miss Winslet as the young Iris suggests this might have been quite a sacrifice.
Writing's introspective and sedentary nature never has been pictorially exciting, and the filmmakers unlike their counterparts in "A Beautiful Mind" don't pretend to take fantastic voyages into their subject's fertile imagination.
What makes an immediate compassionate appeal is the shadow of Alzheimer's, whose ravages seem even more painful when suffered by a prolific and distinguished writer.
The most effective suspense element is fatalistic: the process of decline that begins when Mrs. Murdoch shows repeated signs of forgetfulness and concludes with the virtual effacement of a personality. One image captures the loss more effectively than any other single impression: Miss Dench catching the sight of her reflection in a glass cabinet door and staring in puzzlement at this mirrored stranger.

TITLE: "Iris"
RATING: R (Occasional profanity and sexual candor, with interludes of nudity)
CREDITS: Directed by Richard Eyre. Screenplay by Mr. Eyre and Charles Wood, based on memoirs by John Bayley, "Elegy for Iris" and "Iris and Her Friends."
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

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