Iris is a 2001 biopic about the last years of Iris Murdoch’s life. She was a well-known author for over 30 years and was married to university professor John Bayley who cared for her during her battle with dementia and Alzheimer’s. I was not aware of the history and the facts about Murdoch before I watched the movie. I only did the research later. The film stars the indomitable Judi Dench as the woman at the centre of the story. Watching Judi Dench play a character who slowly loses her mind to dementia is spine-chilling. The younger Iris Murdoch is played by Kate Winslet. At the start of the story, Iris comes across as a clever woman who can banter with groups of people-men, even- with style and charm. When we are introduced to her future husband, John Bayley, he comes across as inept and socially awkward in parallel to Iris’s charm and poise which she exhibits around people. John Bayley in real life was known to have a persistent stammer and this comes across in the film when he finds it oft difficult to talk to her.
Right from the start, we see that Iris is the dominant woman in the relationship. Often, she wears red and this colour represents dominance over the biddable Bayley. When they cycle along the lanes, the greenery in the background represents newness and youth. However, I feel that they must’ve been fiddling with the time frame a little because Iris was 34 when she met John, whereas in the film she looks as if she were in her early twenties. However, that is not the fault of the filmmakers, perhaps only my overcalculating mind is at fault!
During a scene when she is older, Iris is writing in a tiny cramped study and the size of the study makes Iris look almost trapped, as if the walls are closing in on her. Perhaps this is just due to location, but I believe that it is metaphorical for the walls closing in on her as she succumbs to dementia. When she is lecturing at the university, she is the only one on the stage. People are watching her, and she is alone but irrevocably near everyone else.
When she starts going through the early stages of the disease, John assures her that she is perfectly fine and that, for example, he talks nonsense too, and surely there can be nothing wrong with her if other people talk nonsense too?
When she starts repeating herself, I felt a chill go up my spine, I must admit, because even if the film was almost about her Alzheimer’s battle, it wasn’t thrown into the face of the viewer but rather introduced slowly and sped up until she was in the midst of her memory loss.
During the younger scenes, the filmmakers further show that Iris took up the masculine role in the dancing, as in she led it, because John had little experience of dancing or women. She freely dances with other men and doesn’t apologize or ask for an apology. One of his merits, though, is seen to be his endearing nature and although he couldn’t chat women up he still tried by complimenting her on her nose. Iris is also liberated sexually as she is more sexually dominant than her husband-to-be and she even kisses a girl but he doesn’t know how to react as he’s never experienced it before. She also smokes and drinks and doesn’t care what others think as prior to this she hasn’t let herself get tied down to anyone.
Iris’s condition slowly gets worse. She is unable to spell words and sounds them out. Her memory is also affected by the disease and when she is doing a television interview, she loses the thread in the middle of a sentence and can’t remember the topic of the conversation in the first place. On returning home she is confused as to why she was at the television studio in the first place. However, when she is there she watches an old interview that she did only its playing on several televisions at the same time. We all look back at ourselves from the future and wish we could be in the past and reliving those years, but I think from her perspective, she was asking herself in her head why had she changed so much?
John is protective of his wife while she is battling dementia, and defends her against the doctors. But a scene which is repeated many times throughout the film is a scene of swimming. Because swimming means freedom, and that is what both of them craved. Not really freedom from each other, but freedom from the illness. Iris was however still lucid because she tells her husband that she’ll be ‘a starved animal’ if she can’t write, that is…if the fatal process of dementia robbed her of the ability to remember or to write. Sadly, that is what happens over the course of the illness in the film and in real life with real dementia sufferers. Another metaphor used is when Iris also says that she feels she is ‘sailing into darkness’ because in the dark you lose your way, and I think that is what happened with Iris.
She even starts forgetting that she had a book published because she is confused why the postman is there, (she even wonders why a man is delivering the post in the first place), and she also begins to say ‘when are we leaving?” several times throughout the story, which is heartbreaking because they aren’t physically going away. Only her mind is and her husband is helpless against it. He can only watch as it destroys her.
Another swimming scene occurs when the older Iris is swimming and she enjoys it despite her failing mind. However, she gets confused and frustrated when John is helping her put her swimming costume on because she feels trapped. Iris had many lovers during her younger days, and the one she was with at the time that she met John is clearly irked by his mere presence but has to be socially polite for the sake of appearances. This is evident during the conversation held at dinner between the three. The man turns up later in the story. Iris liked men, preferably older men, with a past and she would use them as influence for her books. When John hands her back her white shift, I see it as a way of saying that he accepts the fact that she is not ‘pure’ and virginal, that she has a past and he is willing to put up with that because he loves her so much.
During her years battling Alzheimer’s, the roles were reversed and instead of Iris dominating and controlling John, it was the other way round and John had to care for her and do everything for her. In a scene when Iris isn’t sure which way to walk through a door, it is a very moving moment because nobody could ever imagine themselves being so childlike and dependent on somebody else, or when it is so difficult to do the simplest thing such as walking through a door or signing for a parcel. Metaphorically the scene with the door represents how marooned Iris is in her failing state because nobody can ‘reach’ her and she can’t reach them emotionally because she doesn’t know how to. It also represents the divide between the two people; the woman Iris was before the dementia, and the woman she has become, and is turning into.
She can’t recall her own life and her husband has to tell her about her books, ‘you wrote books…wonderful books’. He also tries to convince the doctors that she is still lucid and can still communicate. He is urging them that ‘we must learn her language before the lights go out,’ During the early stages of Alzheimer’s, a patient will probably recall moments lucidly but as the disease progresses then these moments of lucidity decrease.
However, it seems from the beginning in her adult hood and her time as an author, she already had a duo-personality of sorts, but it was because she had such a complex personality when writing her novels. During a very childlike scene on the bay, she tears pieces of paper out of her notebook and pins them down on the sand with rocks. This is childlike because that’s the sort of thing that children do when they are on the beach and they don’t want things to blow away. But for her it meant keeping her mind close by and pinned to the ground for as long as possible. When she takes the stones away and lets the papers fly, she is almost indifferent as if she didn’t know why the papers were there in the first place. In another scene, her friend Janet asks her to sign her book for her but Iris just tosses it to the ground in a very heartbreaking, childish way.
Lucid moments also occur when she acts almost normal around her husband and friends, or when she sings songs that she remembers from her youth.
Her childlike state is further seen when she watches the Teletubbies (apparently the author in real life did this a great deal during her final months). This is in sharp contrast to her youth, when she was accomplished and clever and talked intellectually about topics such as the classics.
When the police are called, we see the messy house where John and Iris live. They didn’t intervene with each other’s living spaces and they didn’t intervene in the mess which naturally occurred.
Iris walks out of the house and near the main road. She is found and brought back home by her former lover, Maurice, played by the legendary Timothy West. In an interwoven flashback, Iris is seen by John, in bed with another man. She is very flippant and uncaring about it, and doesn’t care for his words of caution. The man she was sleeping with was already married and this didn’t bother Iris at all. She also freely tells John about her sexual past, such as that of when a friend of hers asked for her hand in marriage during the war so she would have a widows pension. However, when he confronts her about the desires of her other personality, she tells him that he knows ‘more about her than anyone else on earth,’
During a scene with the older Iris, John admits that he hates her but she doesn’t react because she has lost the ability to react to emotions such as anger. She only sees that he is upset. However, John refuses to send Iris to a home. When Iris’s best friend, Janet, dies, we see Iris’s delayed reaction to it. Again, I don’t believe that she was reacting to the emotion, but maybe to the feeling of helplessness and having the metaphorical rug pulled from underneath her.
What is saddest of all is that to begin with, John disliked Iris because of her liberated ways to drinking, men and her sex life. However, he tells her that ‘I used to be afraid of being alone with you. Now I can’t be without you,’ and he can’t bear the thought of being without her when she dies.
The saddest scene of them all is when Iris is put into a home but she is collected from the house by the taxi-driver. She is sitting on the stairs, and won’t move, the bars of the banister being like a prison. The taxi-driver coerces her down from the stairs by suggesting they go for a ‘little drive’ (to the old people’s home) but the saddest part of the scene is when she says her name is Iris, because her whole face moves, her eyes move to rest on the taxi-driver and her husband, and her husband probably thought that the woman he had loved was completely gone from his grasp.
A wonderful film, I only managed to watch it properly very recently. A very underrated movie, and many thanks for sticking with this very wordy review right to the end!!