Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Iris (2001) [R] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for

Those who have had a loved one fall prey to the mental ravages of Alzheimer's will see in Iris a depiction that is so lucid and accurate that it may be painful to observe. Anyone who has been spared an intimate encounter with this cruelest of diseases will gain a measure of understanding. Based on the memoir of John Bayley, Iris tells of the first and last days of his relationship with his wife, philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch. It's a powerful, affecting tale that uses scenes of the young couple's new love as a counterpoint to Iris' final days - memories of a brightest spring echoing in the darkest depths of winter.

Iris' main storyline unfolds in the early 1990s, when Iris (Judi Dench), regarded by some as the foremost novelist of her generation begins to experience the first stirrings of the disease that would eventually reduce her to a state of childlike helplessness. At first, she forgets things, and, for someone with a deep and abiding passion for words, her inability to recall the best one becomes a frustrating experience. Eventually, she loses more than just words. She can no longer write or even think coherently. The unknown frightens her. She sits in front of the television, watching shows designed for children. Her husband, John (Jim Broadbent), comfortable for forty years being the weaker half of the union, is now thrust into the role of caregiver. There are times when he is found lacking, but his love for his wife ensures that he will not give up on her until the end.

Intercut with the '90s scenes are sequences from the '50s, when John (Hugh Bonneville) first meets and falls in love with the young, vivacious Iris (Kate Winslet), who loves nude swimming, fast biking, and no-strings-attached sex. Unaccountably, Iris is as drawn to John as he is to her, and it's not long before some of her free-spiritedness rubs off on him. They are a classic case of opposites attracting. She introduces him to sex and he shows her the rewards of simple, honest tenderness. It is in these flashback moments that Iris derives a measure of its power. Through them, we see Iris at her strongest, and understand the foundation of her relationship with John.

Iris persuasively illustrates how Alzheimer's affects not only the afflicted, but those who are close to the victim. During the early stages, Iris - once brilliant, now faltering - is at the tragedy's epicenter. But, as the disease advances, the burden shifts to John. By then, Iris has been reduced to a state where she is unaware of what has happened to her. She is an infant in an adult's body. She does not recognize that her brilliance has been obliterated. That cross is John's to bear. Director Richard Eyre (primarily known for his stage work in England) facilitates our empathy for a man who is powerless to act as the most important person in his life is slowly, inexorably diminished before his eyes. We share John's pain because we, through the flashbacks, have known the younger Iris and recognize what the two mean to one another. And we know that he is ill-suited to care for her (the unhealthy state of their house - with litter and grime all over - emphasizes this).

Because the focus of this film is on character more than plot, Iris demands strong performances. There are four of them (three of which have been honored by the Academy with Oscar nominations). Judi Dench and Kate Winslet, each doing some of the best screen acting of her career, bring Iris to life as both a young and older woman. Their work ensures that Iris' tragedy inspires not pity, but an awareness of loss. Remarkably, contrary to what is often the case when one individual is played by two actors, we never lose sight of the reality that there's only one character. In part because of makeup, costumes, and hairstyling, Dench and Winslet resemble each other, so we never have difficulty reconciling the youthful Iris with her mature counterpart. Similar comments can be made regarding Jim Broadbent and Hugh Bonneville. The actors are physically similar and adopt the same mannerisms. Their performances are not as flashy as Dench and Winslet's, but they are no less crucial to the movie's success.

Lest Iris seem like too much of a downer, there are moments of light humor to go along with the poignancy. Iris and John's courtship is presented playfully, and Eyre's decision to sprinkle the flashbacks throughout the film (rather than present them in one long block) gives us moments of needed respite from the sadness that accompanies Iris' downward spiral. And, while this is a story about the effects and ramifications of a disease, it is also a tale of the unbreakable power of love. While Alzheimer's defeats Iris' intellect, it never sunders the bond that she and John have formed. For that reason, many of the tears to fall during Iris will be shed not only out of sadness.

Labels: biography, drama, romance

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