"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
"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
"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
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 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
"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
Published January 24, 2002