'Iris': A Love Story In Glorious Full Bloom

By Ann Hornaday
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 15, 2002

For Descartes, to think was to be. For Iris Murdoch and John Bayley, to think – and to know – was to love. Murdoch, the brilliant British philosopher and novelist who died in 1999, and Bayley, a distinguished literary critic, formed an incandescent, eccentric and passionate couple, for whom intimacy took on the form of an endless dialogue, an inquiry into each other's most mysterious places, a passionate and endless interrogation of body, spirit and psyche.

These were people for whom precision of language and thought were enormously important in living a moral life: How can we love the good, Murdoch asked, indeed how can we be good, unless we have the means to imagine the good? In the film "Iris," we see with shattering clarity what happens to such a logocentric existence when Logos itself fails. And we are reassured just as clearly that, at least in the case of Murdoch and Bayley, love survives.

Based on Bayley's memoirs, "Elegy for Iris" and "Iris and Her Friends," "Iris" traces the remarkable 40-year relationship of Bayley and Murdoch, who met as students at Oxford. When they met, Murdoch was already something of a legend on campus, held in awe for her incisive mind, her ready wit and her catholic love life. Bayley approaches her with stammering admiration, and his besottedness would not falter even after they were married: Throughout "Iris" it's made clear that he never felt quite in her league, either intellectually or sexually.

What he does give her, though, is the constant reminder that the life of the mind must be ballasted with the senses: Reality isn't just what we construct out of ideas and words but what we can see, smell, feel. It's just that world of pure sensation to which Iris will increasingly retreat when she begins to suffer, at age 78, from Alzheimer's disease.

Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent, who portray Murdoch and Bayley in their later years, both received Oscar nominations this week for their performances; so did Kate Winslet, for playing Iris as a young college student exhilarated by love, lust and really big ideas. The kudos are richly deserved: All three actors deliver fearless performances and bring enormous warmth, vitality and messy humanity to people who, as Murdoch says in the film, largely "live in our minds." Dench and Broadbent tactfully evoke the abstracted nature of Iris and John's relationship – the almost secret language of compulsive punning, the subtle power dynamic at play between Murdoch's ruthlessly penetrating mind and Bayley's more childlike demeanor, the clutter of a house inhabited by scholars preoccupied by greater things. And they just as compassionately, often painfully, portray the slippage of oncoming disease, when everyday absent-mindednessis symptomatic of something more serious.

But as breathtaking as these performances are – Dench especially bears an uncanny resemblance to the real Iris Murdoch – Hugh Bonneville, who plays the young John with such modest ardor, should not be overlooked. Nor, indeed, should the ensemble achievement of the entire film – not just of the cast, but of director Richard Eyre, who with Charles Wood wrote the screenplay, and editor Martin Walsh. Along with the actors, these filmmakers have created something extraordinary in "Iris," not just a fitting document of a life brilliantly lived but a vibrant, almost palpitating piece of cinema that does justice to its subject by reaching just a little bit further than most movies. Gracefully edited between the recent past and Murdoch and Bayley's courtship 50 years ago, "Iris" folds era upon era, then moment upon moment, until the film doesn't so much tell a story as reflect the workings of consciousness itself. Eyre has executed a precise, graceful and intellectually rewarding work worthy of Murdoch herself.

Advocates for Alzheimer's patients and their caregivers have hailed "Iris" as the most realistic depiction to date of the progression of the ailment, as well as its toll on its witnesses. There is an especially excruciating passage in which Bayley gives full vent to his helplessness and rage – even vestigial jealousy – at the "secret world" to which Iris seems to have permanently retreated.

But as welcome as such a realistic portrayal of Alzheimer's is, "Iris" is much more than the chronicle of an illness. Rather it is one of the great love stories, an epic romance of two empyrean minds whose exacting literary and philosophical standards, as well as their firm commitment to the tactile pleasures of life, informed every strand of their relationship. During their courtship, John Bayley responded to a typically high-minded Murdoch discourse on freedom and morality by complimenting her snub nose. It's a yin and yang that animated the whole of their life together and, in the end, served them exceedingly well.

IRIS (R, 90 minutes)contains scenes of sexuality, nudity and language. At the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company