ALZHEIMER’S is no laughing matter, but there is a dark thread of humour that permeates this sad biopic of novelist Iris Murdoch and makes it bearable.
The story of Dame Iris Murdoch from libidinous youth through to eccentric old age, it features a quartet of stupendous performances from Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent as the aged Iris and her husband John Bayley, and Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville as the young Iris and John.
A film of two distinct halves, Iris depicts Murdoch’s terrible slide into dementia in parallel to her younger days as a free-spirited libertine at Oxford. It is there that she meets quirky, bespectacled, naïve John Bayley and, perhaps surprisingly, falls in love with and marries him.
Their story is a palpably odd one, yet their romance lasted more than 40 years and ended only when Alzheimer’s claimed her.
Richard Eyre’s film offers Dench and Winslet, and Broadbent and Bonneville, an opportunity to delve deeply into the psyche of one of the great minds of 20th century English literature and her relationship with the man who was by turns her equal and also an adoring acolyte.
Given that the film is split into two eras and two stories, both couples have opportunities that are rare in films – to tell the same story from two perspectives.
Winslet courageously bares not just her soul in the film but also parades naked as she swims in the Thames with Bonneville. Promiscuous, bisexual, acerbic, intolerant, Iris offers Winslet one of the most difficult roles of her career thus far, and she grasps it to her heart.
She is matched by Dench who, in reality, has the hardest job of all as the older Iris, slowly losing her quicksilver mind as Alzheimer’s takes control. Her descent into a mumbling, incoherent, shambling shadow of her former self is pitiful, but neither Dench nor Eyre play it for sympathy.
Instead it’s told simply and without frills. There is no manipulation here, nor is there a preachy tone. It’s just the facts, starkly delivered and brilliantly acted.
Perhaps the most memorable moment in the film belongs to Broadbent. In bed with Iris, her mind fading like morning mist, he explodes in rage and frustration at her growing dementia, hitting her and throwing out long-buried memories of days long past.
It is a pivotal scene and one that perhaps, more than any other, underlines the pain and heartache of the forgotten victims of this insidious disease – the carers. Throw in snatched glimpses of the squalor in which the Bayleys live and the full horror of Alzheimer’s is thrust home like a dagger to the heart.
A hugely important film, not just because of its subject matter but because of the no-nonsense way with which it is treated, Iris is both biopic and history lesson. More importantly it is a heart-warming love story – a tale of devotion and, at times, obsession that benefits from some of the finest acting we may see this year.