'Iris' brings writer's marriage, Alzheimer's into sharp focus

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In his memoir "Elegy for Iris," John Bayley eloquently observes, "The face of an Alzheimer's sufferer indicates only an absence: It is a mask in the most literal sense." He's speaking, heartbreakingly, of his wife, the writer Iris Murdoch, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1997. And the mask that we see on the face of Judi Dench, who plays Murdoch in Richard Eyre's film adaptation "Iris," is uncannily blank — Dench, who usually radiates quick intelligence, masterfully shows us a mind slowly dimming, a face quietly hardening into impassiveness.

But the main purpose of "Iris" is to give a touching portrait of a real-life marriage of two minds (lived in very real-life squalor — these were people who cared little for objects). The film flits between early scenes of young Iris (Kate Winslet) and John (Hugh Bonneville) meeting at Oxford, and late scenes of an increasingly fading Iris (Dench) and her still-devoted, yet frustrated husband (Jim Broadbent).

This doesn't leave room for any discussion of Iris Murdoch the writer — although we see her writing (briefly), and Bayley mentions her "wonderful novels," we pretty much have to take her brilliance on faith. Fans of Murdoch may find this frustrating, but Eyre has set his sights elsewhere.

One might argue with this approach, but not with Eyre's note-perfect cast. Winslet brings a giddy life force to young Iris, a woman who approaches everything (from bicycle-riding to lovemaking) with a forthright charge. Hugh Bonneville is charming as the nebbishy, awkward young Bayley, and an uncanny physical match for Broadbent.

Broadbent, playing a character several decades older than himself, transforms for the role, with a swayed posture and cherubic smile. It would have been easy to simply play Bayley as saintly in his devotion, but Broadbent's performance has a constant undercurrent of both wry wit and raw pain: The woman he loves is leaving him, but is still there. And Dench seems to physically shrink on screen, her eyes strangely glassy.

Among the film's many affecting moments, one stands out: The older Iris, pre-diagnosis but very confused, fumbles her way through a television interview, ideas flickering on and off. On a nearby TV monitor, young Iris (Winslet), in earlier footage, ponders a question, head tilted to one side as if waiting for her older counterpart. Like "Iris" as a whole, the moment both intrigues and devastates.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.


*** With Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet, Hugh Bonneville. Directed by Richard Eyre, from a screenplay by Eyre and Charles Wood, based on two memoirs by John Bayley. 90 minutes. Rated R for sexuality/nudity and some language. Guild 45th.