The writerly life fascinates me. There is a certain charm and sadness about it. And I keep looking for nuggets on writers’ lives, hoping for moments of epiphany for my own benefit.
Recently saw the film “Iris” (2001) based on Iris Murdoch’s life. The film has apparently been adapted from John Bayley’s book, Elegy for Iris, his memoir on her famous wife. Richard Eyre's film stars Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, and Kate Winslet.
The film opens with an old Iris (Judi Dench) reminiscing, then follows an underwater swimming shot, and cuts to a young Iris (Kate Winslet). The entire film is narrated in that manner, cutting back and forth.
Iris loved swimming. She was almost crazy about it.
"All artists dream of a silence which they must enter, as some creatures return to the sea to spawns,” said Iris.
The film basically focuses on Iris’ relationship with John. It ignores episodes such as her great love for Czech Jewish poet and polymath Franz Steiner, who died of a heart attack in 1952 - in her arms, as per his friend Elias Canetti. Iris had an affair with Canetti but, in 1956, she married John Bayley, who was six years younger and still a virgin at 29. The scene where a bumbling Bayley is first asked to make love by Iris is more tragicomic than passionate.
Bayley was a professor of English at Oxford and also published fiction. They lived more than thirty years at Steeple Ashton in an old house called Cedar Lodge. Later, they moved into the academic suburb of North Oxford.
Iris never took any interest in children; she had some affairs, which Bayley tolerated. However, towards the end of the film, Bayley vents out his anger in a stuttering monologue on the sick, old dame.
Iris was sharp with her remarks.
On being asked how long she took off between books, she is said to have quipped "about half an hour".
In the last years of her life she descended into Alzheimer's. At first she thought it was simply writer's block, which she described while still lucid as "being in a very, very bad quiet place, a dark place".
During the last years of her life, Murdoch became like "a very nice 3-year-old," her husband said. She died in Oxford on February 8, 1999. In his memoir Bayley has portrayed his brilliant wife lovingly but unsentimentally. "She was a superior being, and I knew that superior beings just did not have the kind of mind that I had."
The film has beautifully and rather poignantly captured her fall into Alzheimer's. The director has charmingly created a chiaroscuro-like contrast between an aging, Alzheimer's-ridden Iris and a passionate and energetic Iris.
The film eschews any forays into the creative process that a writer’s mind goes through. Neither does it try to portray why was Iris interested in religious and sometimes gothic themes. These were the greatest disappointments for me in the film. You don’t feel a great sadness when Iris dies. The film failed to touch my soul.
Judy and Jim have acted marvelously.