Published February 14, 2002
“Bad art,” Iris Murdoch once wrote very truly, “is a lie about the world.” And “learning to detect the false in art and enjoy the true is part of a lifelong education in moral discernment.” I wonder what she would have made of Iris, Richard Eyre’s cinematic adaptation of Elegy for Iris, the account of her sad last years with Alzheimer’s disease by her rather ostentatiously uxorious husband, John Bayley? Assuming, that is, she could have seen it with all her faculties. I think she might have enjoyed the virtuosity of Dame Judi Dench’s performance in the role of herself-as-Alzheimer’s victim, though I think she might just have detected a note of falseness in the Bayley’s-eye view with which Jim Broadbent appeals for our sympathies as her long-suffering husband. I think she might have been flattered by Kate Winslett’s performance as the young Iris, though she would also have recognized a certain untruthfulness there.
Above all, I think, she would have winced at the too-obvious artifice involved in the movie’s laborious manufacture of ironies. Not, of course, that there were not plenty of ironies to work with in the fact that a woman like Iris Murdoch who lived by her words, who made a name for herself in the world as teacher, philosopher and novelist, should have ended her life with her mind emptied of its words, able to take in nothing more than the “Ee-oh” of the Teletubbies that she watched on television every day. But the steady minting of ironies is so persistent that we soon begin to get the feeling that the film is only interested in her life as a wordsmith for the sake them. It would have been enough, and maybe more than enough, to have shown us the philosopher who said “How can you think without words?” as she is left to find the answer out, if there is one, for herself.
But the film goes way beyond that. Nor does it allow its ironies to emerge naturally but sets them up too deliberately and unsubtly, especially in the cross-cutting between the scenes of Young Iris’s courtship with Young John (Hugh Bonneville), marked as it was with her frequent infidelities, and the sad end of life where, as Old John says rather sourly “All your other friends are gone. I’ve got you now — except for Alzheimer’s — and I don’t want you.” Young John also says more than once that Young Iris “has more than one world going on in her head” or that she is retreating into “a secret world” of the mind. Can you guess why? “She disappears into a secret world now and again, but she always comes back,” says Young John, just for the sake of our thrill — such as it is — in knowing better than he that in the end she doesn’t come back. Even the death of an old friend is announced to the uncomprehending philosopher by her husband with the words: “Janet’s dead, Iris. They want me to say a few words, but I can’t think of any.”
But the harder that the film works on the ironies it does understand, the more we may reflect on those that it doesn’t, quite — any more than John Bayley’s book does. I refer in particular to the irony of the fact that Iris Murdoch should have worked all her life, as all writers do, to say something that people would remember, and that she now seems more likely to be remembered for getting Alzheimer’s disease and sinking with well-advertised pathos into inarticulacy. This pathos depends on our knowing about it. It is ratified in the public mind by the grace of John Bayley’s prose and now by the artistic enterprise in this gathering of stars and serious actors to present us with her story. Without the books, without the movie, Iris Murdoch is just another one of the millions of old people who fall victim to Alzheimer’s disease every year. Neither her novels nor her philosophy affect that basic fact, or are affected by it.
Ironic, isn’t it? Still, having said all this, I can’t just dismiss the movie. For all its creaky stage-machinery, its performances are powerful enough on several occasions to produce something like the desired effect. And there are some genuinely funny moments. I particularly liked Iris’s response to the worried doctor’s question: “What is the name of the prime minister?”
After puzzling for a moment, she replies: “I don’t know. Ask John. What difference does it make? Someone will know.”
On another occasion Iris, now pretty far gone into oblivious wordlessness, is watching a speech by Tony Blair to the Labour Party conference about the party’s priorities in government — which, he says, are “Education, education, education.”
Iris, watching the television with increasing incomprehension, asks: “John? Why does he keep saying that: Education, education, education?”
Sometimes it also uses humor to lighten the relentless pathos. When the doctor sombrely informs her that the progress of the disease is “implacable,” she says: “What’s that mean?”
“It means inexorable.”
“I know what the word means,” she says.
There is also a fine moment in a three-way interview between Iris, John and the doctor. Iris explains that she is “sometimes frightened and sometimes not. And that’s worse, because that’s it winning.”
John, trying to be cheerful, says: “It won’t win,” but the doctor quietly contradicts him.
“It will win.”
Iris seems almost pleased: “There, you see? It will win. Thank you doctor.”
Best of all, I think, is the moment at which John says to a friend that Iris is in “her own world now. It’s what she’s always wanted” but then the film pulls back from the pecular ironies of her situation to a montage of early love and happiness accompanied by Charles Trenet singing “Que reste-t-til de nos amours?” And our assent, so long withheld, comes all at once for this slight adjustment, this momentary shift from Alzheimer’s disease as pathetic case history to its sad forgettings as a metaphor for that which we all lose. In that moment, as Iris herself put it, art “overcomes personal fantasy and egoistic anxiety and self-indulgent daydream.” In other words, it becomes, at last, true.