Iris: A Contrast of Two Ages

Iris (2001)
Director: Richard Eyre
Starring: Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet

Iris. Did you know of her? Dame Jean Iris Murdoch–a prolific and highly professional writer, philosopher and university lecturer. She produced 26 novels that dealt with everyday ethical or moral issues, sometimes in the light of myths1; indeed, it would seem that her books dealt with issues in her own personal life such as the short novel “Something Special”. She wrote her last book whilst suffering from Alzeimer’s before passing away in 1999. This film, “Iris,” based on a biography by her devoted husband, Professor John Bayley, is a tribute to her works and to her life2.

I wonder, is it by coincidence that her name is associated with the eye–the instrument of sight? For throughout the film, particularly in the depiction of her youth, her association with insight and clarity creep up time and again. Her works dealt with love, education, and how this led to the only true thing – freedom of the mind. Her tools were words, language, and the expression of thought.

The film flows between young Iris and old Iris through the medium of water – a subtle film technique used to exhibit the fluidity of her character and her freedom of being in her youth. The confidence, boisterousness, and brazenness of her youth were evident in all her actions whether it was wearing scarlet at a conventional Oxbridge ball, flagrant skinny-dipping, smoking, or wild cycling. Although she exuded a vibrant and passionate personality, it must be said that she did still appear to be rather conventional, almost mechanical, at times.

The parallel depiction of her life as a young woman and as an old woman was a subtle tool used to contrast the two ages of Dame Iris Murdoch and to exhibit the ironies of life. As an old woman she was heavily dependent on her husband, whom she had gently patronized when she was young, whilst the progressive disease of her mind eroded her ability to write and speak. The liberated Iris became a prisoner of her own mind, the airiness of her youth was replaced by dank clutter in her old age, clarity was transformed into confusion, speech into silence, charisma into dolefulness. Although he was still a doting husband, John Bayley’s devotion became intermittently mixed with frustration and bitterness in his old age as he assumed the role of teacher in their relationship, the role that she had held throughout their youth.

Kate Winslet (young Iris) and Judi Dench (old Iris) play their roles convincingly especially beside their respective supporting actors, Hugh Bonneville (young John Bayley) and Jim Broadbent (old John Bayley).

The contrast between the luminously confident young Iris and the timidly perplexed old Iris may have been sharply apparent but their characters were subtly synchronized through the use of time-resistant ties: John Bayley, old friends, water, and her idiosyncratic attachment to stones.

The use of subtle illumination in certain scenes, the continuous use of water and the simple instrumental music were subtle reminders of the lightness of Dame Iris Murdoch’s youth. Directed by Richard Eyre and filmed in the United Kingdom, this film is certainly worth viewing if only to enlighten us on Dame Iris Murdoch’s life.

1Information largely extracted from
2Based on information from