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(2001) (Judi Dench, Kate Winslet) (R)

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Drama: The life of novelist Irish Murdoch is explored in this film that shows her in her later years battling progressively worsening senility, balanced with views of her in her youth when she first met and fell for the man who would become her husband and stick with her through those later rough times.
Iris Murdoch (JUDI DENCH) is a well-respected philosopher and author of some 26 novels who lives for words and the freedom of the mind. Thus, when she starts to forget things, she begins to worry, but her longtime husband, John Bayley (JIM BROADBENT), attributes it to just old age. Yet, when her condition continues to deteriorate and medical tests eventually show that things won't get better, John does what he can - with the aid of Iris' lifelong friend, Janet Stone (PENELOPE WILTON) -- to help Iris get through her progressively worsening senility.

As he does so, he remembers their early days together at Oxford in the 1950s with Janet (JULIET AUBREY). There, Iris (KATE WINSLET) is just starting her writing career, and John (HUGH BONNEVILLE) is simply blown away by her beauty, brains and free-spirited nature, although he's somewhat troubled by Iris's sexual freeness, including her affair with Maurice (SAMUEL WEST), a snobbish married man.

As the story alternates back and forth between their early and later years together, John continues to care for his wife of 40 years, even when she no longer resembles the bright and independent woman she once was.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
Although different movies have different purposes - whether it's to make you laugh, cry, cringe in horror or simply part you with your hard-earned dollars - those that manage to accomplish more than that are usually the ones that stick with you long after seeing them. Namely, I'm referring to those that make you think about and/or examine some part of your life in relation to what occurs on the screen.

"Iris" is one of those films. A look at the life of novelist Irish Murdoch and her literary critic and fellow author husband John Bayley, the film manages simultaneously to entertain and make one ponder life, love and both their good and bad points. Told in a storytelling fashion where the narrative alternates between the couple's early and then later years, the film does have some elements that may annoy some viewers.

There's that alternating structure - where the same characters appear in the same or similar scenes as the older ones remember the past or the filmmakers show us the comparative aspect of them at different ages - that may initially make the film seem disjointed to some, and for others prevent it from completely carrying them away.

For those looking for an in-depth biopic about Iris Murdoch the person and novelist, the approach taken here is also bound to frustrate as there isn't a great deal of extensive biographical material on hand. There is some validity to both points, particularly with the latter as the film doesn't present much more than a superficial look at the woman.

In fact, the film could have been about fictitious characters without losing much, if anything, in its final presentation. Yet, that's beyond the point writer/director Richard Eyre (making his feature film debut after helming various TV films and stage plays), and co-writer Charles Wood ("The Knack," "An Awfully Big Adventure") are attempting to explore.

Instead, and as they work from the memoirs, "Elegy for Iris" and "Iris and Her Friends" by the real John Bayley, they're presenting a unique love story that's tragic and uplifting, as well as funny, sad and ultimately quite moving.

Considering that it's a story about two gifted intellectuals at different stages of their lives - both when the lights are burning bright and then when they begin to dim - the film is filled with terrific bits of dialogue that are profound whether they're complex or simple in nature.

In addition, part of what makes the film so compelling is the juxtaposition of different stages in one's life, how people deal with that and then react to the changes in themselves and their loved ones. It won't be surprising if many viewers thus find thematic similarities between this film and "A Beautiful Mind," a title this film easily could have borne as well.

The element that truly takes the film to exalted levels, however, is its performances. Playing the titular character at rather disparate stages of her life, both Judi Dench ("The Shipping News," "Chocolat") and Kate Winslet ("Quills," "Titanic") are superb. With each showing a bit of the other's characteristics and nuances, there's never any doubt they're playing the same woman.

While Winslet proves yet again - and seemingly effortlessly - that she's one of the finest young actresses working today, it's Dench who gets the far meatier role. Having to play the character as she progresses from an intellectual author down through the helpless throes of senility, Dench is completely believable throughout the transformation. Both actresses are terrific in their roles and not surprisingly, each earned Oscar nominations for their efforts.

The film isn't just about their collective character, however, as the story focuses just as much on the man in and throughout the protagonist's life. Equally holding their own with their female co-stars, both Jim Broadbent ("Moulin Rouge," "Bridget Jones's Diary") and Hugh Bonneville ("Mansfield Park," "Notting Hill") are excellent in their respective takes on the same man.

Both mange to create a credible and distinctive character, with Bonneville's coming off as quirky and entertaining while Broadbent is apt to break viewers' hearts by essentially traveling alone through the madness of being forced to change from loving husband to an often frustrated, but still compassionate nurse.

It's an incredibly moving and sad, but ultimately inspirational performance that also earned the actor an Oscar nomination. Having one terrific performance in any given film is a treat, but to have four in just one picture is something to be cherished.

All of that said, some might be disappointed that the film delivers only a superficial look at the many aspects of the real novelist's life. Yet, the work both in front of and behind the camera - including a wonderful score by composer James Horner ("A Beautiful Mind," "Enemy at the Gates") -- makes this a picture worth seeing, hearing, experiencing and allowing it to open your eyes and examine your own short and fragile time in this world. "Iris" is a terrific picture that anyone who's loved or longed to love should see. It rates as an 8 out of 10.

Reviewed February 7, 2002 / Posted February 15, 2002

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