The film, which was directed by Richard Eyre, is based on Bayley’s memoir Elegy for Iris.
Kate Winslet plays the younger version of celebrated author, philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch while Judi Dench plays her older, aging and health-failing self.
What was so compelling about the movie, was its ability to make us connect with our aging selves in a way we avoid on a regular basis. While we are able, BE able, because we never know when able is no longer a choice for us.
The young novelist is ahead of her time – she has affairs with both sexes openly, yet reliably stands by awkward, lacking in confidence John Bayley, who becomes a lover and ultimately her life-long husband.
John is there until the bitter sweet, sad end……it seems likely that we’ll each have someone we deeply cared about in our life, by our side when we make the transition from physical to spiritual, and yet, it’s also probable that we may be alone or alongside a nurse, a doctor, a hospital roommate, inside of a crushed car, at the bottom of a river or buried in a fire – we just don’t know.
These are the things we avoid thinking about and frankly, never talk about. We hope somehow that we do not have to face these inevitables. Iris takes you there and reminds us that we’re all human and feeds us all the sorrowful and also beautiful elements of what it means to be human…
We get to decide how to handle it, shape it and integrate it into our journey, our life story…..a reminder that we all have a life story – what’s yours? What do you want it to be?
While we are able, BE able. I kept thinking this over and over again while I watched the unraveling and unveiling of her life. We watch husband John deal with a mental illness as she ages and so many times, I found myself wanting to reach out to him and say “I know. John, I know.”
We all want to say I know, as we watch the course of events, because saying so means we ARE human, we understand vulnerability, we understand pain.
In one scene, she is shown showering with a female friend……….Iris looks at her and says, “I see an angel, I think it’s you.” This girlfriend re-enters her life during the final phase of her mental collapse and we see a worn, sad and broken face, like so many of us have worn when we’ve had to mourn a loved one, parent, child or lover, while they are in fact still alive. Stroke. Alzheimers.
The pain is often unbearable because the old memory you had of them is replaced by a new version of them, a sick version of them, one which gets added to the memory bank.
You see them, but they don’t see you. You know them, but they don’t know you. You remember the intimate colorful memories and they recall nothing. You are touched by a word or the way they walk across the room, their voice……………and yet nothing returns. They physically stand before you yet only their ghost looks on.
You’re not yet ready to let go however because another human emotion emerges: hope. It could reverse. We may cherish one more moment with them before they slip away, where the grip, the look, the stance, the voice, the tone, one word, will bring you both back to a beautiful chapter in a chapter of your lives you once both shared.
The clock ticks. They don’t return.
Iris didn’t return. The girlfriend stares at Iris who barely recognizes the one she once called an angel. Iris no longer recognizes her latest book or John or the postman or the sand below her feet.
John says to her friend, “you can say anything you’d like as long as it’s a joke.” “It’s cruel,” the friend replies. But John who, because of his love for her, because of his pain, replies in a melancholy brushed off tone: “it’s nothing, it’s not understood. It’s her own world now…….perhaps it’s what she always wanted.”
Iris, the author, the philosopher, the poet, the thinker, the dreamer. She mesmerized so many, yet was out of reach for most, except for John, who on the surface didn’t really belong in her world, yet because of his love, was the only golden rod that remained. She was a woman who cherished words more than anything; she said, “for without them, how do we feel?”
The scene after Iris no longer recognizes her girlfriend, there’s a dance. A delicate, kind, tender dance. We feel Iris saying goodbye, as if the only way she can communicate the departure from reality, is through the physical and the emotional.
At this point, unless you’re either not human, you can’t help but weep.
The camera takes us back to Iris and John in their thirties. There are frequent flashbacks to them swimming in a pond and cycling along a dirt road where John has a hard time keeping up with her. She screams with a smile on her face as he tries to catch up……to capture her.
As she races ahead of him on her bike on that long dirt road, she shouts to the sky, “Remember Proteus? You’ve got to keep hold of me the way Hercules kept hold of him.” This never leaves John. It was her test, one of many. In other words, “John, how strong are you? How consistent? How resilient? Will you always be here?”
Yet, she has multiple lovers throughout their courtship. Men and woman. But, he loves her, her flimsical, bird-like tendencies to fly, to test, to pollinate, to explore, to be. So natural is Iris. So charming. So honest. So real.
While they are still young, one day John says to her before her first novel was published, “Everything you do, everything you say, write….you do it superbly and you’re going to do so your whole life.” And, she does.
A love story. Yes. But, it’s also about humanity. About aging. About life’s choices. How we handle turbulence. How we handle our loved ones slipping, leaving, dying. A sad but honest capturing of life as it is, not how we want it to be. Watch it and tell me how you felt.