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Starring Dame Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville.

This biographical movie on the extraordinary English novelist Iris Murdoch is basically about the effect of Alzheimer’s Disease on a brilliant mind and stars the superb pair Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent as the older Iris and her husband John Bayley. Together with Hugh Bonneville and Kate Winslet as their younger selves, these four actors make a superb feat of blending so seamlessly that at times it takes a conscious effort to see them as different actors. Their mannerisms, postures and energy are faultlessly duplicated.

Based on Bayley’s book Elegy for Iris, it is equally about a loving and passionate partnership which spans forty-four years. The film juxtaposes scenes like echoes of the same events or actions from Iris’s youth and earlier mature years with the steadily progressing symptomatic stages of her mind’s disintegration. It begins with scenes of Iris lecturing to a group in which she surprisingly and with no obvious linkage to what she is talking about, bursts into a song her mother taught her. We then see her experiencing her first difficulties finding the right words when writing what was to be her last novel. By the time the book is published, halfway through the film, she no longer remembers that she once wrote. It ends with her death.

Young Iris, played with a radiant and steady confidence by Kate Winslet, is unconventional and eccentric, a bluestocking. She swims naked, eyes wide open under the water. It is a wonderfully Jungian Image of a person who has both penetrated the sometimes murky fluidity of the unconscious mind and is supremely and joyfully at home in it. She hurtles on her bicycle down a country lane like someone who can never go fast enough, shouting out that she is Proteus, and that the trailing John must just hold on to her. She is shown as a free spirit, captivated by ideas and by words - as she explains during a lecture - because of their structural value in giving meaning to our experience. In a television interview late in her career she is described as always having been very exact in her choice of words. Ironically it is in this interview that words are first shown utterly to fail her, and she returns home confused about why she was at the interview at all. Subsequent medical tests include a brain map indicating dark areas in Iris’ brain where there is no longer activity. Progressively the light is going out in her brain.

Earlier, giving a speech at a literary function, she says education is important because it lets us know what is of value. Despite this the young Iris shows a remarkably right brain approach for someone so ostensibly logical and academic. She is shown to be warm, spontaneous and independent in her opinions, taking seriously the gauche and diffidently naïf young man who becomes her husband, John Bayley, whom, it seems, she instinctively knows is the right partner for her. She is also shown as being far more sexually active and aware than Bayley, who is a virgin at 28, and discreetly mysterious about her many lovers. People, many people, value her, are attracted to her, while Bayley waits jealously and humbly in the wings, not knowing his own importance to her and questioning whether he even fits into her world. She responds by saying, “You ARE my world - you know more about me than anyone.” Her self-revelation is her special gift to him.

So one of the film’s main messages, conveyed cinematographically through frequent images of light and water, is about revelation, illumination juxtaposed to murkiness, clarity juxtaposed to confusion. There is also the juxtaposition of a brilliant talent, a person who lives in her mind who bothers not at all with such mundanities as house-cleaning. Their house, never orderly while Iris was still functioning, becomes ever more squalid as her illness develops. It seems hardly to make a difference when she rather automatically, in the way of Alzheimer’s sufferers, urinates on the living-room carpet.

In his book, Bayley describes Iris as an angelic person who creates with enormous perspicacity characters of great depth in her novels, while in real life she serenely ignores nastiness, meanness or lack of consideration in her friends. Perhaps living in the mind enables one to ignore the real world and create one’s own complex reality. However, the book also depicts Iris as consciously choosing areas of life on which to put her attention and energy. The film, more simply, shows a person who delights in life and who sees below the surface reality to penetrate to the gold within. Unlike a friend of mine who cannot begin to write until her house shines and every chore is out of the way (and then sits for hours in front of a blank screen) Iris writes and Iris lives because that is what she has chosen to focus on. Nothing else matters but her intention and its manifestation.

Fluidity and structure is another of the film’s themes: words as structure for meaning and her fluent mastery of them in expressing a complex inner awareness of life. Bayley discusses in his book the subject of Iris’ identity and her conviction that she had none. He observes that she certainly had no grasping, self-important ego of the kind often seen in famous people. He often compares her to Shakespeare in her ability to get inside her characters and their extraordinary psychological range. From this viewpoint one can deduce that both Shakespeare and Murdoch demonstrate an Ego which transcends the personal and has become transpersonal. The film shows little of this, however, except perhaps symbolically through the imagery of immersion into boundless ocean or water and the compassionate or enlightened lack of significant moralistic attitudes held by many of the characters. 

To extrapolate further, beyond the direct scope of the film but inspired and provoked by it into philosophical rumination perhaps appropriate to Murdoch’s own philosophical bent: from the viewpoint of spiritual work, the more structure a person has, the more difficult the passage through dissolution of the personality on the journey after death to rebirth. Paradoxically, spiritual evolution entails the necessary cultivation of structure in the developmental stages of the ego from the unconsciously prepersonal, through the neurotic stage of the personal ego to transpersonal Ego (spirit incarnate).

For a person of Iris Murdoch’s mammoth creative structure, Alzheimer’s is a gift. In the book we read about her lifelong attachment to things which others value little: stones, leaves, bits of glass and broken shells (like her character Moy (Moira) in The Green Knight). Nothing was ever thrown out (though nothing was carefully kept or preserved, either). How much more attachment must there have been to the world she created, peopled by the characters of her mind. Like the decrepitude of their house which could only be restored to a livable state once they have left it, the rubbish dispatched, unsorted, straight to the tip, Iris’ mind falls apart. And it does so painlessly without any resistance on her part.

How much more merciful to go through this dissolution while in life than the terrible conscious clarity after death most experience for the first time, that all one has created, thought, felt and done is not in truth one’s identity but an illusion. Perhaps for Iris, her great appreciation and love for life made Alzheimer’s a preferable, more expedient ending to that life.

© Avril Carruthers, 27th Jan 02

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