The taglines used on movie posters seem to get sillier all the time. The line for Ali is “Forget what you think you know” — which sounds more suited to a mystery about, say, UFOs than a biopic about a world-famous figure; a biopic, moreover, that is known to hold its subject in some reverence. The tagline for Vanilla Sky was better, and more appropriate: “LoveHateDreamsLifeWorkPlayFriendshipSex”. Trouble is, you can only make sense of it once you’ve seen the movie.
The slogan for Iris, the story of the last years of writer Iris Murdoch’s life, in which she succumbed to Alzheimer’s, is just annoying. “Her greatest talent was for life”, we are informed. What? Not such a great author, then? Or is it just because “life”, a concept hypocritically lauded by Hollywood movies over concepts such as “fantasy”, as in Vanilla Sky, is somehow a category of achievement separate from everything else?
It might be halfway acceptable if the movie gives us any sense of her works, but it doesn’t do much of that. Yes, we see her lecturing to a group of students, which sets her up as a kind of fount of philosophical wisdom, and we see her scribbling away at her last book, and we hear a television presenter describing her as the greatest writer of her generation, but that’s about it. We are fully informed that she’s a writer, and a great one, which makes the tragedy of her brain-destroying disease even sadder, but even just a quick pan across a bookshelf showing her 30-odd titles would have helped.
Admittedly, it’s terribly hard in a film to give any real sense of a writer’s work. It’s not like painters, who can be shown splashing away at an easel, and then you see the painting. You can’t insert a precis of a novel into a movie about a novelist. I suppose I feel the gap in the movie because Peter J Conradi’s recent biography of Murdoch sent me back to her work after many years and I rediscovered what a compelling novelist she is.
Iris, the movie, perhaps, will encourage some viewers to check out her work — which would be great, but I’m not counting on it. It’s too easy to see the film as a sad tale of a great mind brought low by disease and to leave it at that. It feels like a slight towards Murdoch the writer.
Okay. Having got that off my chest, I can say that Iris is a superb movie, with lovely performances from Judi Dench as old Iris, Jim Broadbent as old John (her husband, upon whose memoir the movie is based), as well as Kate Winslet as young Iris and Hugh Bonneville as young John. Two narrative lines are swiftly and skilfully intercut: that of the meeting of the young Iris and John at Oxford in the Fifties, and their growing love, and that of the pair some four decades later as Iris’s mind begins to go. She herself puts it most aptly, and beautifully: “I feel as though I’m sailing into darkness.”
The story is well told. Murdoch was a liberated woman, with a tortuous lovelife. Bayley must at first have seemed rather ordinary to her (he says of love, “I can read it but I can’t speak it”), and she did indeed keep him waiting for some time while she sorted out her other amours. But come to love each other they did, and they settled into a life of mild eccentricity and much mess — their chaotic home could be read as an analogue for Iris’s decaying mind, but they always lived like that.
Murdoch may have been a great intellectual, but she was no frosty hung-up ice maiden. As she says in the film, calming John’s hesitations and doubts, “Hang on and trust the body.” Her fiction puts mind (or philosophy, or moral awareness) into a tension with the body — that which feels sexual passion, in particular. And her Alzheimer’s, in a way, returns this deeply cerebral person, in an uncompromising way, to the body and its discontents. The resulting movie is deeply moving — even if you haven’t read any of her books.