Few literary love stories break the heart more surely than the one told in the new movie "Iris," the tale of the marriage of Iris Murdoch (Judi Dench) and John Bayley (Jim Broadbent).
In real life, they were a classic unconventional couple, she the defiantly brilliant bisexual Oxford philosopher and novelist, he the shy, stammering teacher and critic six years her junior. Married for 43 years, they lived together in a notoriously untidy cottage, up to the time, beginning in 1995, when Iris was stricken with Alzheimer's disease while writing her last novel, "Jackson's Dilemma." John was her caregiver for the last four years of her life while she sank slowly into silence, gradually forgetting her books, her university life, her friends, her city, the English language she used so eloquently, her name - and everything perhaps but John himself, still there to the last, lifting spoons of food to her gaping, cooing mouth.
Richard Eyre's "Iris," which tells this sad story - graced with luminous, Oscar-nominated performances by Dench as Iris and Broadbent as John - is not up to the people who inspired it, as described in Bayley's books "Elegy for Iris" (1999) and "Iris and her Friends" (2000). But I'm not sure it ever could have been or that it really matters. Director Eyre and his screenwriter, Charles Wood - who, long ago in the '60s, wrote "The Knack" and "Help!" for Richard Lester and The Beatles - have taken the events of Iris and John's lives, during the first and last years of their affair and marriage, and compacted them into an almost mercifully swift account of youthful passion and elderly grief, juxtaposed and entwined together.
We first see Iris, played by Dench at her magnificent best, spellbindingly brainy at an Oxford University dinner: her face twinkling with irony, mastery and sheer sensuous pleasure in words and their effects. Then Eyre and Wood begin their to-and-fro construction, flashing back to Iris' youth, her introduction to younger John at another dinner-lecture, and their courtship while cycling and swimming. They're an odd couple. Iris was an erotic bon vivant, inspirer of lust in both sexes (including, though the movie doesn't show them, novelist-philosopher Elias Canetti and "her great love," Czech poet Franz Steiner), while John was a 29-year-old virgin, tormented by her promiscuity, watching her window from the street below as she made love with whomever. The movie effectively shows their great variance in sexual experience and predilection, and also what finally draws them so tightly together. We see Iris in full bloom and Iris withering; John enraptured and tortured by her sensuality and John searching when she wanders off, raging against the fate that imprisons them, and quietly, wonderingly, watching her die.
The young Iris is played by Kate Winslet, whose full-bodied good looks are perhaps the film's major false note (she also was nominated for best-supporting actress). The 66-year-old Dench is an eerie double for Murdoch in her 70s, but Winslet looks nothing like the Iris whom Bayley describes as not beautiful, even if sexually irresistible. Still, Winslet, too pretty for her part, does convey something more vital: the brilliance, spark and easy eroticism of the young Iris, just as Hugh Bonneville, as young John, gives us earlier peeks at the qualities we will treasure in John's incarnation by Broadbent: constancy, quiet compassion and a full-hearted appreciation of the magical creature he marries.
We may be too conscious that Judi Dench is a dame, theatrical legend and now perpetual movie Oscar nominee - and too conscious that "Iris" offers a quintessential Oscar role and performance. Something in the part is missing. Perhaps because he has the Winslet scenes as contrast, Eyre too rapidly sends the old Iris into decline. We and Dench are robbed of the chance to get all the pity and horror of her deterioration, a fuller portrayal of the slide from genius to emptiness.
What goes wrong with the film is that it's too short, too compact. It carries us along too quickly to shatter us as it should have.
But Dench cannot be faulted. She gives us everything: the matchless Iris in her academic element and the Iris who barely speaks or thinks. She has obviously studied closely the mannerisms of Alzheimer's victims, and she reproduces them with heart-stabbing accuracy. More important, she shows us what the story needs more than anything: a sense of the person that still exists when Alzheimer's has robbed her of nearly everything else, the being within that her husband still recognizes and loves, a soul surviving in the gathering darkness.
Broadbent, a character star since 1990 and Mike Leigh's "Life Is Sweet," also rises to the challenge, watching and reacting with a mastery that matches Dench's, showing the bleak icy fears beneath that compassion, supporting Dench's Iris in the fullest sense of the word.
Director Eyre is one of England's most prized theater directors, but he has directed only rarely for films; one of his few was "The Ploughman's Lunch," his cynical 1983 film on the media in the Falklands crisis. He tries a bit too hard to keep "Iris" supple and cinematic, when all it needs is simplicity and clarity.
This film should have been a masterpiece. It isn't. It should have sent everyone weeping from the theater. I'm not sure it will. It's good, but not great - despite the heights to which Dench and Broadbent drive it. But those heights are lofty, the pain still stings.
Directed by Richard Eyre; written by Eyre, Charles Wood, based on the memoirs "Iris and Her Friends" and "Elegy for Iris" by John Bayley; photographed by Roger Pratt; edited by Martin Walsh; production designed by Gemma Jackson; music by James Horner (solo violin by Joshua Bell); produced by Robert Fox, Scott Rudin. A Miramax Films release; opens Friday, Feb. 15. Running time: 1:30. MPAA rating: R (sexuality/nudity and some language).
Iris Murdoch - Judi Dench
John Bayley - Jim Broadbent
Young Iris- Kate Winslet
Young John - Hugh Bonneville
Janet Stone - Penelope Wilton
Young Maurice - Samuel West
Old Maurice - Timothy West Somerville principal - Eleanor Bron
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune movie critic.