Sailing into darkness
Iris is a sad and frustrating movie, not least because it can’t get out from under its own sadness and frustration. Certainly, its subject matter, the life of British novelist Iris Murdoch, lends itself to such sentiment. The heartrending, harrowing story of her struggle with Alzheimer’s disease is already well known, chronicled in Elegy for Iris and Iris and Her Friends, memoirs by her husband, the critic John Bayley (which, in fact, form the basis of director Sir Richard Eyre and co-writer Charles Wood’s screenplay). But the film renders this terrible loss with clichés rather than insights. It’s difficult not to respond to the tear-jerking devices (perhaps especially if you’ve any experience with Alzheimer’s patients), but it’s also difficult not to see them as devices.
One of these is the film’s too-clever-by-half two-part structure, with Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville playing the young Iris and John, and Dame Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent playing the older versions. This split provides a too-schematic contrast between the vivacious, brilliant, rule-breaking Oxford student Iris and the frightened, brave, declining Iris, eventually too shattered even to recognize rules, much less put her rage into language. The split also shows the evolving John, at first timid and dazzled by the glorious Iris, then alternately horrified and angry.
Early on, John admires Iris’s fearlessness, her energy and wit, as well as her many admirers, professional and personal. As played by Bonneville in particular, he looks mostly befuddled, a socially inept bookworm, appalled and captivated when, at a party, he sees a drunken Iris fall splat on her fabulously red-dressed behind. When he’s visibly shaken, she’s visibly pleased, realizing her power as a kind of manipulative shock-effect. Inviting herself to his rooms, Iris proceeds to seduce him.
John can hardly believe his good luck, but soon learns that Iris sees him, initially at least, as another of her brief, no-strings liaisons. “I know you must feel I don’t belong in your world,” he sighs plaintively. Soon, however, he endears himself to her, not only by agreeing to her terms, but also by being bright enough to “keep up” with her, despite his fear that he’s always behind. For John, Iris is an “angel,” with whom he shares an extraordinary love of language, but whose own gift for wielding it eludes him (he stutters and bows his head, she’s radiant and explosive with energy). In turn, she appears to appreciate his naïveté and generosity, underlined when he helps her out of a jam with a one-time suitor who’s begun to irk her.
While the film does include a lovey-dovey scene or two, it’s more interested in the more exciting moments, the ways Iris makes John’s life rather hellish, before and after the disease. True as this may have been, this choice of emphasis doesn’t give the film much time to consider her work or thinking, supposedly key aspects of her appeal to John and everyone else. The longsuffering John contends first with her apparently voracious sexual appetites (various partners, reduced here to one he happens to walk in on) and disdain for his conventional notion of commitment, and later with her loss of memory, confidence, and eventually, identity.
At its worst, the movie lapses into obvious metaphor, as when young Iris drags John to a swimming hole, where stripping to his underwear serves as a sensual experience beyond John’s wildest imaginings: he’s smitten by her lusty recklessness and seeming lack of affect (of course, she’s nothing if not self-conscious). And wouldn’t you know, this scene is answered by another, when they return to that same spot years later. This time, she’s far enough along into the disease that she becomes confused and he has to “save” her from a group of passers-by who frighten her.
But as clunky as this set of scenes is, it also brings to light the movie’s most provocative notion, which is to consider the couple’s longstanding contest of wills. Though John is plainly the cow-towingly supportive partner through most of their relationship, he occasionally expresses his exasperation with her repeated refusals to “change” an iota for him. “You must accept me as I am,” she says. “Nothing matters except loving what is good.” As she says this, you can almost feel poor John’s heart stop an instant—yes, she’s good, but she’s also bad, selfish and aloof in the way that celebrities are often encouraged to be. Her brief displays of warmth have more to do with her needs than with wanting to take care of anyone else. How cruelly ironic, then, that she ends up in such a state, a bundle of needs, unable to communicate. And how disturbing but understandable that John gasps hold of her neediness, as a way to care for her, to keep her home, to make her life his, instead of the other way around. That the film shows this bleak side of their relationship is to its credit.
So, when he’s advised (repeatedly) to get professional help in caring for her, his resistance makes a certain sense, even if it means that their home becomes debilitated, piled high with books and newspapers and dirty dishes, and that he himself is losing track of daily necessities. While she is, as she puts it, “sailing into darkness,” he’s still struggling to keep up. John’s occasional explosions and errors in judgment ostensibly emphasize his admirable devotion, yet they also show the crack in their relationship. When, for instance, she’s unable to write sentences because she gets stuck on single words (“puzzle,” for one vigorously symbolic example), he tries to pass it off as mistakes anyone might make, trivializing her growing panic even as he’s repressing his own.
Looking after her when she is so helpless grants John (if not you) an uncomfortable pay-off. But the film tends to smooth over these complicated feelings—his and yours—as Iris slips further inside herself, allowing you to observe his loss and hers in palatable, watchable movie terms. Again, this is an understandable choice, to gaze on Iris from John’s perspective, looking at her back as she sits on the beach, silent and still, maybe even content in her absence. Cut to what Iris is doing on that beach—placing blank pages from her notebook under stones on the sand beside her, her eyes turned to but not really focused on the gray sea stretching before her. Both images—his view and yours—are full of longing and sorrow. What’s impossible to show is her view.