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Dumb show
Iris is at a loss for words

Iris. Directed by Richard Eyre. Written by Richard Eyre and Charles Wood. Based on the books Elegy for Iris: A Memoir and Iris and Her Friends by John Bayley. With Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Bonneville. A Miramax Pictures release. At the Avon.

As the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz taught us, sometimes it's not so important to have a brain. Certainly around Oscar time it can be a disadvantage, and brainlessness definitely helps in the enjoyment of such paeans to mental dysfunction as A Beautiful Mind and I Am Sam. On the other hand, it does take some smarts to get Memento and, to a lesser extent, Iris, Richard Eyre's earnest but clumsy adaptation of John Bayley's memoirs of his wife, the renowned British novelist Iris Murdoch.

Like Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind, Iris takes on the daunting, if not hopeless, cinematic task of depicting genius and its opposite -- or perhaps complement -- derangement. To its credit, Eyre's film doesn't resort to the clichés, hypocrisy, duplicity, and manipulation of Howard's lauded fraud. Instead, it's a formless ramble veering from platitudes to profundities, from the shock of lucidity to the paralysis of being "puzzled" -- the word Murdoch (Judi Dench) chooses to describe the first symptoms of her as-yet-undiagnosed malady.

It's Alzheimer's disease, and perhaps no crueler joke can be imagined than depriving a novelist (26 published) and philosopher of her faculties of language and memory (unless it's John Nash's fate of having his mathematical powers usurped by schizophrenia, and then having it all put on film by Ron Howard). Early on, the film shows young Murdoch (Kate Winslet) regaling a dinner table of admirers with her gift for words in a monologue about the inadequacy of words. Later, the older, Dench version of the writer waxes eloquent on the primacy of words, without which we have no thought (Nash might differ) and, presumably, no memory or identity. Finally, with brutal irony, she is struck dumb during a television interview while discussing the debasement of language in popular culture.

When language and memory are gone, what remains? Iris suggests that love prevails, and, unlike in the story fictionalized by Howard's film, a pretty good case for it exists in the 43-year marriage of Murdoch and Bayley, at least as described by the latter in his memoirs. An Oxford don and a literary critic, frumpish and stuttering, Bayley was always subordinate to the charismatic and brilliant Murdoch until the illness exacted its terrible reversal. The film's focus on this love lures it at times into the maudlin, but also provides its flashes of insight and intensity.

For example, though Bayley's dedication to Murdoch seems admirable, Eyre does not shy from expressing more pathological roots. As promiscuous in her youth (with both men and women) as she was prolific in her career, Murdoch must have been quite a handful, and in one scene the younger Bayley (Hugh Bonneville) spies on her in a clinch with one of her many "friends," suggesting the obsessive, masochistic jealousy of Swann in Love. Later, the older Bayley (Jim Broadbent, who, usually ranges in his portrayal from bumbling to doddering), his life sunk into a squalid co-dependency reminiscent of the last stages of David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, explodes with rage at the uncomprehending Murdoch (Dench, a saintly, soiled fireplug), telling her that now that he has her all to himself, he doesn't want her, now that he can know all her secrets, he doesn't care. It's a long way from Howard's bowdlerization of Nash's tangled love life, and its honesty makes love's triumph, or at least endurance, all the more moving.

Eyre, a theater director making his first movie, succeeds in such individual scenes, but he has no unifying vision for the film, either in structure or point of view. His narrative method is to alternate moments from the couple's first and last years together with stroboscopic frequency and logic. At the drop of a stone or the turn of a head he'll cut from post-Alzheimer's Iris at the beach tossing blank pages into the wind to the voluptuous Kate Winslet version capering naked underwater, and from young Bayley trying to catch up with a jubilant Iris hurtling along on a bicycle to the old man searching desperately for his wife when she has wandered thoughtlessly away.

The juxtapositions seem obvious but arbitrary. Are they meant to depict Murdoch's illness-addled consciousness? Underscore the pathos of Bayley's loss and sacrifice? Are they a commentary on the ephemerality of experience, the capriciousness of memory, the vanity of human efforts to preserve beauty or understand it? At times, the cruel contrasts seem like punishment for a woman's hubris, if not her sexuality. Those whom the gods would punish they first make mad. Then they make their lives into movies.

Issue Date: March 1 - 7, 2002