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Iris (2001) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

john bailey disease condition

Principal social themes: aging, end-of-life issues

Miramax. R rating. Featuring: Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslett, Hugh Bonneville, Penelope Wilton, Juliet Aubrey, Kris Marshall, Pauline McGlynn, Sam West, and Timothy West. Written by Richard Eyre and Charles Wood based on the books Iris: A Memoir and Elegy for Iris by John Bailey. Cinematography by Roger Pratt. Edited by Martin Walsh. Music by James Horner. Produced by Robert Fox and Scott Rudin. Directed by Richard Eyre. Color. 90 minutes.


Iris is a poignant and reflective film on the life of famed British novelist Dame Iris Murdoch (1919–1999), concentrating on her final years when she fell victim to Alzheimer’s disease, and the efforts of her husband, college professor John Bailey, to care for her and to cope with her condition. This film received enthusiastic praise and numerous awards, including the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Jim Broadbent as the elder John Bailey.


This film unfolds on two interrelated tracks, cutting back and forth frequently from scene to scene. The first storyline takes place in the 1950s as literary critic John Bailey (Hugh Bonneville) pursues his courtship of the brilliant writer and free-thinker Iris Murdoch (Kate Winslett); the second follows Dame Iris Murdoch (Judi Dench) as she completes her last novel in the mid-1990s and begins to suffer the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, and the efforts of her husband (Jim Broadbent) to care for her. At first, the effects of her condition are hardly noticeable. She continues to lecture brilliantly, but she starts to have difficulty finding the right words in her writing. Her mind begins to wander occasionally, but it is only when she draws a complete blank in the middle of a taped interview that she is alarmed enough to have some tests. Her physician comes to her home and asks a series of questions. She is upset when she cannot remember the name of the British prime minister. John tries to reassure her as the diagnosis suggests Alzheimer’s disease. She takes another series of tests, this time in the hospital, and starts to exhibit dyslexia with a number of simple words. The doctors inform them that the progress of the disease will be inexorable.

Iris completes her novel, but by the time the book is published, she has lost all interest in it. She becomes increasingly disoriented. When John takes her swimming, one of her favorite pastimes, she panics, having forgotten how to swim. (This scene, like most others, is interedited with an earlier scene in the 1950s when the nude Iris takes John swimming in the same location.) Iris starts to lose all contact with reality. She wanders off one day while John is busy typing, and he desperately tries to find her, calling the police and driving around the village. Finally, Iris is brought home by an elderly gentleman whom John fails to recognize as one of Iris’ lovers from the 1950s. Another crisis occurs when Iris panics in the car and opens her door while the vehicle is still in motion. John pulls over and searches the wooded embankment, finding Iris lying in a pile of leaves. While checking to see if she is hurt, Iris tells John that she loves him, one of her last coherent thoughts. The time has come when John is no longer able to care for her, and she is placed in a nursing home. She has completely retreated into her own dream world. John visits her frequently, and when she passes away, he is sitting by her bedside holding her hand. As John starts to pack away her clothes at home, he thinks back on his wife, both in her vibrant days of the 1950s and her radiant lectures of the early 1990s.


Iris manages to be tender, compelling, funny, yet almost painful to watch as the elder John Bailey observes his beloved wife transform from an extraordinary scholar to a helpless shut-in devoid of personality. The film shows the happy couple aging in almost gracious terms at first. As her condition worsens, Iris becomes irritable, frightened, and restless as she loses her personality a bit at a time. This process is most difficult for John, who tries in vain to stem the tide of her condition. If any audience member has suffered the trauma of losing a loved one to Alzheimer’s disease, this picture might be too heartbreaking, as it accurately charts the stages of the condition. Iris shines a clear light on the issue of aging, such as the inability to no longer care for a loved one, and touches on end-of-life concerns as well in a most understanding presentation.


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