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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Iris

Starring: Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent
Director: Richard Eyre
Rated: R
RunTime: 91 Minutes
Release Date: December 2001
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Kate Winslet, Hugh Bonneville, Penelope Wilton, Samuel West, Juliet Aubrey, Eleanor Bron

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

The prolific British writer and philosopher Iris Murdoch wrote this when she was already suffering from Alzheimer's disease during the late nineties..."I do not think that the artist has a duty to society. A citizen has a duty to society...The artist's duty is to art, to truth-telling in his own medium. The writer's duty is to produce the best literary work of which he is capable, and he must find out how this can be done." This excerpt comes from a biography by Peter Conradi just four years ago. If only Conradi's book and not the memoir written by Murdoch's husband, John Bayley, were the source of this static film! "Iris," which is scheduled to open in early 2002 but which will debut in New York and L.A. on December 14 (with an eye to securing an Oscar for Judi Dench), is a memoir which is so limited that we wonder just how much the writer--her own husband, mind you--knew about his celebrated wife. By the time the brief biopic concludes, we grasp virtually nothing about the woman, who died at the age of eighty of Alzheimer's, but instead we are left wondering whether the film is just an artsy disease-of-the-week feature that could appear on, say, BBC rather than on the big screen.

Would it have been so difficult for Richard Eyre, who directs and has co-written the literary piece, to depart from the book just enough to let us know that among Iris Murdoch's many affairs was one with her favorite lover, a Czech Jewish poet named Franz Steiner? Might we not have been apprised that Iris was once an active member of the Communist party and that she took no interest in children? Or are her politics and views of family life of little interest to the man who wrote her memoirs? All we really know about their joint inclinations aside from writing and teaching in college is that they shared a love for swimming, and we do see considerable exposure by the two in the water both when they are young in the 1950's and during their declining years. (In the film's one and only humorous scene, a stuffy school teacher escorts his charges through a woodland when they all coming up the nude body of Ms. Murdoch enjoying her watery pastime. He shoos the kids away and then takes a good look at the attractive young woman himself when safely out of view of the kids.)

Director Eyre shifts the scene frequently from Iris Murdoch while in her seventies (Judi Dench) and beginning to suffer the symptoms of the disease that would take her life and the much younger woman (Kate Winslet) who introduced young John Bayley (Jim Broadbent) to his first sexual experience when he is already twenty-nine years of age. Hugh Bonneville and the young Bayley and Ms. Winslet as the youthful Murdoch have an uncanny resemblance to Broadbent and Dench, and all perform their limited roles to the precision that would have pleased Murdoch--who was herself a perfectionist.

As the film brings out, Iris Murdoch wrote her twenty-six novels not in the interest of mere entertainment but because she was determined to express to her readers the philosophic meaning of the good life and the importance of love. Though such works as "The Sea, The Sea" (her best known piece of fiction) and her polished 1957 novel "The Sandcastle" are not mentioned at all in the movie, Mr. Eyre and co-writer Charles Wood appear deliberately to limit themselves to the relationship of the couple almost separate from the resonance they had in the outside world--though we do watch the older Iris speak in a TV interview and to a couple of groups interested in her philosophy.

As a biopic, Anand Tucker's "Hilary and Jackie," is easily the more engrossing as we are apprised not only of the highly charged, equally non-linear portrait of the British cellist Jacqueline du Pre (whose rendition by Emily Watson matches Ms. Dench's Oscar-anticipated work in the Eyre film) but features some arresting performances on the cello by the du Pre sisters as portrayed by Emily Watson and Rachel Griffiths. When a memoir gives us virtually nothing of the published thought of a great writer, how well can we really know her?

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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