It’s amazing, and I don’t mean that in a good way, the number of people who have publicly benefited from the private disintegration of the acclaimed British novelist Iris Murdoch in the years before her death in 1999. First her professor husband of 40 years, John Bayley, mined his wife’s frightened descent into Alzheimer’s-induced dementia to harvest some small late-career notoriety of his own as the author of two books about how specially he cared for Murdoch as she unraveled. Now Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent court huzzahs and award nominations for their ferocious portrayals of the couple in Iris. This glazed-porcelain teapot of a drama, written by Richard Eyre and Charles Wood and based on Bayley’s books, is directed by Eyre—former artistic director of Britain’s Royal National Theatre—with heaping emphasis put on the bohemian disarray of the Murdoch-Bayley relationship in general (good housekeeping was never a priority even in saner times), and its squalid post-Alzheimer’s decline in particular. Here’s bewildered Murdoch first losing access to the written word, then to all comprehension; here’s old Bayley shuffling past piles of household mess to take possession, finally, of the woman who, with her freewheeling sexual appetites, was never entirely his in her prime.
The movie’s most artful feature is the fluidity with which the past slides into the present, echoing Murdoch’s own unmoored sentience, so that the younger self, played with dash and vigor by Kate Winslet, turns into the old woman lost in her own home. All the players (including Hugh Bonneville as the student Bayley) are ardent, all the camera work thoughtful—but none so engaging as the novelist now gone, her mind, in its prime, eternally aglow in her own words. B