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You donít need to know who Iris Murdoch is or was, says Richard Eyre, the director of her biopic, Iris. "Itís about forms of love." If he had to give it a subtitle, it would be ĎEnduring Loveí.

"If I say Iíd like this film to be enjoyed by people who have never read a word of Iris Murdoch, heard her name spoken or seen a photograph of her, it is not because I donít want to celebrate the achievements of her life or to mourn her death. It is simply that I hope that people can appreciate this film without bringing special baggage on board.

"Essentially, Iris is about forms of love and the way in which love changes and love endures," explains director Richard Eyre, who co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Wood. "Iris is first and foremost a love story and I make no bones about that. It is a story of enduring love, a story about love and old age which covers Irisís whole life. In a sense it reflects on everyone, because in every relationship you have to accommodate the otherness of the other person and thatís very much what itís about. It also explores how you can be separate beings in a marriage and yet the sum of the marriage is greater than the parts."

The author and philosopher Iris Murdoch died on February 8, 1999. Shortly before her death her husband, author and academic John Bayley, wrote Iris: A Memoir (published as Elegy For Iris in the United States). It is a frank, moving and sometimes humorous account of his life with the woman who was frequently described as "the most brilliant woman in England." The latter part of the book dealt poignantly with the effect of Alzheimerís on Iris as well as Johnís selfless devotion to his wife of 43 years. He subsequently wrote a further book about their life, Iris and Her Friends. Both books were critically acclaimed on their publication, and were at the top of the bestseller lists.

"an act of heroism"

"Thereís no doubt in my mind that what John Bayley did in looking after Iris was an act of heroism," continues Eyre, "Precisely because he was obviously not terribly good at looking after himself. It was an act of love to continue to look after her and I found that tremendously moving. There was a major shift in their relationship - from Iris being the dominant partner, the person that John very much looked up to and deferred to - to her being completely dependent on him. One of the characteristics of the illness is that it peels away what is extraneous to reveal the essence of their relationship. Thatís a fascinating journey, and itís a journey that spans her whole life."

Richard Eyreís mother suffered from Alzheimerís - an experience which he described in his autobiography, Utopia And Other Places. "The particular agony of Alzheimerís is that it robs a person of their being and of their personality," explains Eyre. "Although in some ways they remain who they are, somehow they are constantly diminished and you just see the person they once were gradually disappear. Itís agonising. One of the things that Iíve tried to show in the film is that even though the person is disappearing in front of you, in some way there is a sense in which they remain. You can still love the person because their soul is still there until the end."

"she has tremendous modesty" on Judi Dench

Judi Dench was attached to star as Iris Murdoch from the very beginning - as far back as spring 1999. At that time, Richard Eyre was directing her in David Hareís National Theatre production of Amyís View in Londonís West End (an acclaimed production which subsequently transferred to Broadway). "Iíve known Judi for 35 years and sheís a very good friend and simply the best," he says. "She is very, very subtle in the way she takes on a characterís physical attributes. Put on one side her skill as an actress, which is matchless. She has this humanity - her gift is to imagine other peopleís lives and to not put herself in the way between the character sheís playing and the audience. So she is an absolutely transparent being who allows the character she is playing to breathe through her. And she has tremendous modesty about her, which is very attractive because you feel invited into the characterís world.

"Jim Broadbent was an absolutely unanimous choice for the part of John Bayley. Once weíd thought of Jim it was impossible to think of anyone else playing the part. He is so idiosyncratic Ė there is no actor anywhere who is anything like him. Heís brilliant at observing behaviour and he has entered into the spirit of John Bayley in quite a remarkable way. And heís managed to play someone who is actually 20 years his senior with an ease that alarms him."

Eyre describes the casting of the Young Iris and Young John as essentially a Young Judi Dench and a Young Jim Broadbent. "It was an astonishing piece of good luck that Kate turned out to be free at the time that we were filming and was willing and enthusiastic to play the part," he says. "Judi in the film does have an extraordinary youth about her. The miracle was that Kate was in some way like a clone and an alter ego of Judi, and they have an identical spirit which harmonizes perfectly. Kateís a very mature and thoughtful woman and her greatest strength is similar to Judi Denchís Ė her humanity.

"Thereís a historical Iris Murdoch and thereís an Iris Murdoch as embodied by Kate Winslet. I donít think thereís a huge difference between them. Iris Murdoch was extraordinarily vigorous. She had a physical energy and an intellectual energy that was really charismatic. She was a star."

"incandescent goodness and decency"

"What Kate and Judi brought to the film is this incandescent goodness and decency. They are both very warm-hearted people who donít dissemble and in some ways that is terribly important to the film. Although Kateís features are unlike Judiís, thereís a correspondence of spirit between them, they kind of rhyme."

Eyre sees similarities between Jim Broadbent and Hugh Bonneville, who plays Young John. "Like Jim, Hugh is a slightly offbeat actor in the sense that he isnít an absolutely straight-down-the-middle romantic young lead, heís a character actor," says Eyre. "Hugh is physically very similar to Jim and he has a remarkable ability to observe peopleís behaviour and become a character without being a superficial mimic. In some way, a combination of Jim and the real John Bayley went in to his characterisation. He has real wit and like Jim, heís a very accessible and open person on screen."

When it came to writing the screenplay Eyre turned to Charles Wood, with whom he had collaborated on the BBC television drama Tumbledown, about the 1982 Falklands War. "We started with the premise that it had to be a double narrative," explains Eyre. "The idea of someone losing their memory and losing the faculty of language was a very potent theme, and that was the spine of the story. The tension throughout the film was always to be driven by the youth of the young couple and the decay of the old couple - the young couple falling in love, and the old couple staying in love - and the two stories converging."

"a cracking good story"

"Iíd wanted to work with Richard again, and I was delighted to be asked to work on Iris because it is a cracking good story," says Charles Wood. "Itís the first time Iíve co-written with someone else but I will do it again with alacrity. Writing with Richard was the most marvelous experience. It was surprisingly painless."

Published January 24, 2002

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Richard Eyre on Iris Murdoch:
She wrote 25 novels after Under The Net. The best are: The Bell, A Severed Head, The Nice and The Good, The Italian Girl, The Black Prince, The Unicorn, The Sea The Sea (which won the Booker Prize in 1978), A Word Child, and The Philosopherís Pupil.

Her novels are psychological detective stories, which portray complicated and sophisticated sexual relationships, and her plots have an operatic quality, often combining bizarre and macabre incidents with moments of high comedy. It is difficult to categorize her as a novelist: sometimes highly observant, often highly inventive, droll as well as serious. Her last novel, Jacksonís Dilemma, was published in 1996.

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