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With: Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet, Hugh Bonneville, Penelope Wilton, Juliet Aubrey
Written by: Richard Eyre, Charles Wood, based on a book by John Bayley
Directed by: Richard Eyre
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality/nudity and some language
Running Time: 91
Date: 12/14/2001

Iris (2001)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Sick and Tired

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Our disease-of-the-week movie this week (following A Beautiful Mind and I Am Sam) is Iris, the story of English author Iris Murdoch, who contracted Alzheimer's disease in her old age.

Distributor Miramax probably assumes that I'll give Iris a rave review because it's been nominated for three Oscars and it deals with such touching subject matter, blah, blah, blah. But this movie represents everything that's stale about movie-making -- and especially movie awards -- today.

To start, Iris is directed by Richard Eyre, who comes from the BBC, helming innocuous, dusty, dull little TV adaptations of things like King Lear and Suddenly, Last Summer. The prestige of his subject matter alone was enough to keep his head above water.

I suppose he expects the subject matter of Iris to similarly disguise this empty filmmaking; he's looking to get more out of it than he put into it.

Eyre's one bright idea is to cross-cut images of the young Iris Murdoch (Kate Winslet) with images of the older one, played by Judi Dench. It's effective to some degree, but it also cuts in half the time we spend with either side of the character. In the end, we don't know much about her other than that she was feisty, wrote books and came down with Alzheimer's.

This story comes from the point of view of Murdoch's longtime love John Bayley, played by Hugh Bonneville as a lad and Jim Broadbent as a senior. Bayley clearly worshipped Murdoch, so the film presents only a rose-colored version of her. When she's feisty and rebellious, she's presented as pleasantly charming, not dangerous or destructive.

Of course, as soon as Iris begins losing her marbles, Eyre loses interest in the younger version and concentrates almost solely on the older one, who wanders around with a glazed look in her eyes.

Eyre knows that the disease itself in this kind of movie is as good as an explosion in an action movie, so he goes where the money is. Why show human beings relating to each other when you can have Iris blankly wandering down the side of the freeway?

Winslet, Dench and Broadbent all have been highly praised for their efforts in Iris. They're all actors I admire, I've liked them very much in other films, and I agree that they do the best job possible under the circumstances. (Broadbent has one particularly nice moment when the wandering Iris is found and brought back to him.) But their characters are half-drawn sketches.

My grandmother suffered from Alzheimer's, and I can attest firsthand how awful it is. But the horror comes not from the sufferer, who most of the time probably doesn't even realize that he or she is sick; it comes from their loved ones who have to live with the shock that this person doesn't recognize them, doesn't love them anymore. We as an audience relate mostly to these supporting characters whose lives are upended.

Disease-of-the-week movies can't ever seem to digest this idea. Iris and other films concentrate only on showcasing a bravura centerpiece performance (in this case, Dench). Basically, we're watching a freak in a cage, when the movie should be about us, the watchers.

The other question is: Would a movie have been made about Murdoch if she had simply been a successful author and died quietly in her sleep? I doubt it. No, this film was specifically designed to fill any gaps in this year's Oscar nominees, the same as A Beautiful Mind and I Am Sam. Don't believe the hype.

Best Buy Co, Inc.