(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2002)
Alzheimer’s disease is tragic whenever it strikes, and I doubt many of us can watch a film on the subject without descending into morose speculation about our own futures. My grandmother had it, and my only personal consolation is that I was probably too young to appreciate the full extent of what had happened to her. Ronald Reagan is probably the most famous current sufferer, but his family and the media have been discreet in not telling or showing us too much of his condition. The one I always think about is Rita Hayworth – one of the most beautiful women who ever appeared on the screen. She was no more than 60, and could have achieved much more.
An awful reckoning
It’s a long time since I started on article on such a personal note, and it’s not necessarily a tribute to Iris, the film that prompts this beginning. If the movie were better, I would want to write about the movie. Since it is what it is, I find myself thinking more about the disease.
A few months ago I quoted a writer who criticized the movie Ali for not depicting Ali’s Parkinson’s disease – he called the impairment of the champion’s unique gifts of movement and speech “a reckoning that might have come out of Greek tragedy.” I wrote that I didn’t see how a depiction of this period of Ali’s life could have avoided morose irony and reductive metaphor, falling far short of Greek tragedy. I now feel even more confident in this judgment, because Iris has a very similar “reckoning,” and the film’s impact is almost exactly as I anticipated.
I’ve never read any of Iris Murdoch’s work, although I feel I’ve always known about her. But like many others I assume, my view of her now has been largely defined by her Alzheimer’s. It’s a shame it’s that way, but her husband John Bayley’s memoir of her decline has been hard to avoid. In addition to Bayley’s book, there’s been at least one widely reviewed biography of Murdoch, not to mention numerous articles and obituaries that attended her death and the run-up to the new film. These articles all discuss her youthful promiscuity, her charisma and intellect and interest in ethics and morals. But most of all they discuss her Alzheimer’s.
Dimming the light
The film’ success or failure probably depends on your reaction to its one major structural decision. It intertwines the young Iris, meeting Bayley at Oxford, embarking on a relationship with him despite continuing to sleep with other men; and the old, long-married couple as her disease takes hold and eventually consumes her. The contrast heightens our sense of the ultimate tragedy, and as I mentioned already, there’s an obvious irony in the dimming by Alzheimer’s of an intellect as vibrant and forceful as Murdoch’s.
But the film shows us nothing at all of her creative prime. There’s a scene of the young Iris spellbinding a dinner group with her wit and verbal agility, and a fascinating one of the old Iris and Bayley in the supermarket, chattering away in an idiom that’s simultaneously brilliant and batty. We see her delivering a speech on the importance of education. But we never learn anything tangible about her books or her ideas. We see her working on her last novel, but the film makes so much of her difficulties in concentrating that it’s frankly incredible, on the basis of what’s shown, that she could ever have completed it. (In reality, and as shown in the film, by the time the book was published she couldn’t recognize it as her own work, and reviewers noted a distinct decline in clarity and quality.)
Such deficiencies are common of course in films that purport to portray genius – A Beautiful Mind is another recent example where we must take Nash’s brilliance largely on faith. But that film has a more obvious populist intent, not least because it leads toward personal triumph rather than defeat. Iris takes an approach that seems much more reductive and unsatisfying. It’s quite a short film, lasting just an hour and a half, and yet still feels rather protracted and repetitive. Occasionally the juxtaposition of the young and the old Iris produces some frisson or grace note. But the artistic point is usually obscure.
Indeed, the structure does more to reveal Bayley than Iris. In one scene, lying in bed beside her, he rages against her for her promiscuity. Even though she’s far beyond comprehension, she moves closer, as though to comfort him. It’s a striking moment, and the effect of it is certainly deeper for the numerous earlier scenes of the young Bayley just watching her, time and time again, as ego or life force or sheer delight lead her desires temporarily away from him.
Sop to sentimentality
The film owes a lot to its actors – hence the Oscar nominations for Judi Dench and Kate Winslet as the old and young Iris, and the win for Jim Broadbent as the old Bayley. It also owes a lot to the art and set directors who constructed the eye-poppingly messy house of the couple’s later years. But in the end, it’s no more or less moving than its subject. I didn’t like the midway twist of A Beautiful Mind (in which we learn that some of what we’ve seen to that point has been a product of Nash’s imagination, and therefore realize the depth of his self-delusion) as much as many people did. But I couldn’t help thinking that Iris needed something like that – some kind of cinematic springboard, even if one in danger of seeming over-facile.
Early on in the progress of the disease, Bayley speculates for the doctor that maybe Iris hasn’t left language behind, maybe there’s still meaning in her behaviour that they must try harder to locate. Nothing in the movie supports that hypothesis, and I don’t suppose studies of Alzheimer’s would bear him out. And yet, the film would have benefited had it surrendered to that idea, even for a few minutes. Even if it were merely a sop to sentimentality, I wish that one of those scenes of Murdoch just existing, her lights having long dimmed, could have zoomed in through her eyes via some kind of digital technology flourish, flowed down the optic nerve and tumbled into the cerebral cortex, where we’d find intact her memory and analytical power and wordplay and books not yet written. Sure, it’s a “grass is greener”-type thing to say: if the film had done just as I suggested, maybe I would have criticized it for losing its nerve. But as the movie stands now, I rather wonder why anyone wanted to make it at all.