Novelist Iris Murdoch, a writer and thinker of celebrated brilliance, suffered the mental deterioration of alzheimer's disease. Her husband of 43 years, British critic John Bayley, wrote two memoirs about their enduring marriage and love, for which he was critically acclaimed. This movie version of those books conveys some idea of the respect in which he held her and his faithfulness as her capacities died away. A fine reflection about trust and loyalty, but it does little to convey what it was about her that makes her worthy of such grand theatrical attention. In this regard, the film is no better than most other film biographies -- severely wanting in clarifying the subject's achievements and in bringing our appreciation to at least the level of the filmmakers'.
But, I'll tell you what: there is something here that's outstanding, and that's the casting. The challenge of the screenplay is that in the attempt to show the years of productivity as well as the more contemporary story, it calls for two versions of each principal character, and in this it meets the challenge far better than most such attempts.
One could hardly do better than the intelligent Kate Winslet to represent the young Judi Dench and there's no sterner test of it than intercutting between them, revealing such a close proximity in their brightness, awareness and levels of energy. It's a remarkable casting pair to convey a young/old identity and the brilliance of it makes the editing transitions work synergistically. Editor Martin Walsh provided the editorial flow.
But what about the two John Bayleys? Well, here, the filmmakers seem to have pulled a virtial rabbit out of the hat in the remarkably well chosen Hugh Bonneville pulling off the physical attributes and mannerisms of his alter ego, Jim Broadbent who plays John Bayley. This may have been the greater challenge and the remarkable parallelism between the two further makes the time line jumps beguiling to watch.
Despite this seamless matchup of characters, one is strained by the attraction John has to Iris as these characters are portrayed, though Winslet pulls out her kittenish powers to convince us of it, even while commandeering physical gratifications with other men. It's difficult to avoid the feeling that these other men are far more attractive to her. So, it's disappointing that the screenplay doesn't make exceedingly clear what it was in John Bayley, or about him, that made her choose him for a life companion. We are to assume a superior intellect? A more sensitive nature? A greater strength of character? No such answer is provided and an opportunity to make an important emotional connection to the material is lost.
Another serious problem resides in the balance between the young and the old, one that favors us witnessing the enfeeblement of an alzheimer's patient to the considerable loss of interest in the film. Yes, Dench is a consummate artist and, yes, it's a joy to watch such skill, but not in such abundance when she's portraying a character that's such a strain to experience. John Bayley did it -- he was married to the deteriorated Iris. But we, the audience, were not, and there's not enough here to compensate for so much exposure to the pity of it.
The more general misstep here was in releasing this movie in theatres and raising expectation so high. No doubt the first class cast led Miramax down this path, but they would have been better advised to assign it to the small screen. As it is, it's likely to wind up there as what it seems destined to be, a documentary on PBS.