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Iris Reviews

Two extraordinary performances anchor this generally sturdy adaptation of Elegy for Iris, literary critic John Bayley's tender 1998 memoir of his marriage to the late novelist, philosopher and playwright Iris Murdoch. Kate Winslet (radiant even under Murdoch's trademark bob and bangs) plays the Iris of the mid-1950s, a bold, sexually adventurous thirtysomething Oxford philosophy scholar who's trying her hand at novel writing when she's introduced to the younger Bayley (Hugh Bonneville). Judi Dench portrays the aging Murdoch of the 1990s, author of 25 novels and a Dame of the British Empire struggling to finish her 26th — and last — book as the pall of Alzheimer's disease falls over her rapidly deteriorating mind. Once-familiar words puzzle her; she catches herself repeating the same phrase twice in a row; she inexplicably bursts into song while delivering a lecture at her alma mater and completely loses her train of thought during a TV interview. As Murdoch gradually retreats into what she herself once described as a "very, very bad quiet place, a dark place," she grows increasingly dependent on Bayley (now played by Jim Broadbent), her husband of over 40 years, who holds out hope that his wife has simply left for the place all great writers go when creating their fictional worlds. Like Bayley's book, the film is a profile of both an enduring marriage and a particularly cruel disease. But it's far less imaginatively structured; director Richard Eyre and his co-writer Charles Wood flash back and forth between the two Irises with dull, disappointing regularity. The characterizations, however, are gripping. Dench's turn is the kind often tagged as "brave," and for once the description is apt. As the disease takes hold she barely speaks a word, aside from a few obsessively repeated phrases; Dench allows the ravaging effects of the disease to speak through heartbreaking pantomime and her pitiable, degraded physical appearance. It's a great achievement, quiet enough to allow room for her excellent supporting cast — Bonneville and Broadbent are perfectly matched as the younger and older Bayleys, and both are superb — but strong enough to be felt over James Horner's omnipresent, typically overbearing score.