Director and co-writer Richard Eyre (best known for his British TV work), screenwriter Charles Wood (once the principal writer for Richard Lester’s films — Help!, The Knack, How I Won the War, The Bed-Sitting Room) and four fine actors — Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet, Hugh Bonneville — in the central roles prove that traditional filmmaking isn’t dead and need not be unadventurous with Iris, a biopic on novelist Iris Murdoch (Dench and Winslet) and her husband, John Bayley (Broadbent and Bonneville). Basing their film on two memoirs penned by John Bayley — Iris: a Memoir and Elegy for Iris — Eyre and Wood develop their film by cross-cutting between scenes of Iris and Bayley in their later years, when Iris is succumbing to Alzhemier’s Disease, and scenes of their courtship and younger days. In lesser hands, the device could be both confusing and annoying. As scripted by Wood and Eyre and directed by Eyre, the results are moving, lucid and ultimately life-affirming in the best sense of that term. It’s a magnificent feat that not more than a handful of filmmakers (most of whom are either dead or in semi-retirement) could pull off, but which here seems inexorably right. It’s all done in a filmmaking style that never gets beyond the use of some underwater camerawork in the high-tech department, and yet is as adventurously and creatively handled as the best of the more computerized breed of filmmaking, and considerably more so than the bulk of such. Undoubtedly, this is partly a budgetary restriction, but it’s also the conscious choice of a filmmaker who realizes that true creativity doesn’t rely on tools. Eyre has no need, nor desire, to minimize the essential humanity of a story that is, in the end, the simple story of two plainly not simple people over a span of 40 years. Splitting the acting chores down the middle by having Dench and Broadbent as the older pair while Winslet and Bonneville play them as they were 40 years earlier works. It works not just because it’s possible to believe that Winslet and Bonneville could indeed physically age into Dench and Broadbent (Bonneville looks enough like Broadbent that it’s almost possible to believe he is Broadbent made up to look younger!), but because the actors are so completely in synch with each other’s interpretations. The performances are nigh on to flawless and Dame Judi certainly deserved her Oscar nomination, though not perhaps as much as Broadbent deserved his Oscar win. It almost goes without saying that Dench gives a tremendous performance (when does she not?), but it’s really Broadbent that provides the film its emotional center — a center grounded, it should be added, in the largely overlooked performance of Bonneville. In crafting the movie, the filmmakers have instinctively realized that their story is less about the descent of Iris Murdoch into the darkness of Alzheimer’s than it is about John Bayley’s loyalty and devotion to her and love for her. Dench is extraordinary, yes, but Broadbent is even more so, handling a role that could so quickly have become maudlin and unbelievable, yet never is. The key — apart from the sheer human believability of the actor — lies in the fact that the film and Broadbent are fully as determined to present Bayley’s frustration, and even occasional anger, in dealing with a person who can no longer be reasoned with — and often cannot even be reached — as they are to present the more noble qualities of the character. Moreover, there’s no hint of Bayley thinking of himself as a martyr, no hint of willful self-sacrifice. He’s merely a man handling an impossible situation in the only way he can think to do so. For this characterization alone, Iris deserves the highest of honors, but there’s much more here. Director Eyre imbues the film with simple, effective symbolism and the very real sense that he genuinely cares for his characters and their story, resulting in a wholly effective, deeply felt film. Iris can be read as a tragedy and tear-jerker — and it’s certainly both — but that does it a grave disservice. Ultimately, it’s really a film about caring, about love, about human interaction and about the indomitability of the human spirit. See it.
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