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A tragic biopic

Instead of Iris Murdoch, the film gives us little 'Iris'.

Michael Caines

Topics Politics

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When Iris, the film about the late author Iris Murdoch, premiered in New York in December 2001, it was received with tears and applause. In January 2002, when it opened in the UK, director Richard Eyre was told by an American producer to ‘watch out – they eat their own over there’.

How right he was. For although Iris has mustered some acclaim in Britain, critics have found much to dislike – not least its inaccurate presentation of Murdoch herself.

Murdoch, for those who don’t know (or who have only seen the film), was a writer and a philosopher. Some say she was a great writer, though not necessarily with every book (27 novels published in about 30 years) – but she certainly created some truly odd and captivating dramas. Although Murdoch’s husband John Bayley provided us with an insight into her life and novels in Iris: An Elegy and Iris and Friends: A Year of Memories, hardly any of this has made its way into the film. In fact, almost none of it.

We see Dame Judi Dench as the older Murdoch, struggling to write her last novel Jackson’s Dilemma – spliced with flashbacks to Kate Winslet as the young Murdoch, using her first novel as a kind of love token, although not referring to it by name. This juxtaposition is supposed to show a great mind gone to waste with the terrible ravages of Alzheimer’s disease – but without a shred of evidence for Murdoch’s greatness.

This has baffled some critics. A recent TV documentary, called Iris Murdoch: Strange Love on BBC 1 on 23 January, showed Murdoch in a more serious light, including early footage of the writer looking and acting nothing like Kate Winslet’s version (though Winslet’s act is now bound to become the accepted version of ‘young Iris’). In Iris, by contrast, we are shown a slight and vulnerable woman. Indeed, Katherine Duncan-Jones, who knew Murdoch and Bayley while at Oxford University, writes of her shock on seeing Bayley, as played by Jim Broadbent, towering over Judi Dench as Iris in the film – when all the pictures agree it was the other way round in real life. But instead of Iris Murdoch, we are given little ‘Iris’.

I should confess that I am an afficionado for Murdoch’s novels but less so for her private life. But why should I care that my version of the ‘real’ Murdoch has not made it into a film which, after all, takes the beginning and the end of her lifelong love affair with John Bayley as its subject? Perhaps because films about writers and artists tend to be so dull – like watching paint dry – and also because I am angry that it has come to this. Never forget Kate Winslet’s high praise for Murdoch: ‘I’m a great fan of hers but I haven’t read any of her books. I just don’t have the time.’ What exactly does Winslet admire about Murdoch? And why all the public attention for private affairs when there are 27 novels still in print, with only a handful filmed or staged?

The answer lies in personal tragedy – the vicarious enjoyment of a real person’s pain that fiction just can’t supply. It is not long into the film before Murdoch and Bayley are trapped in a nightmare, as carer and patient. The love and understanding they once knew has dissolved into The Dumb Waiter. And, the love story aside, the really urgent message of the film is ‘gee, this Alzheimer’s sure is a bad thing – and look, it could happen to anybody – it could happen to you’.

For journalist Joan Smith, ‘it may seem odd to bracket Murdoch with such exiguously talented people as Anthea Turner, Geri Halliwell and Dave Peltzer’ but ‘what they have in common is the way in which their private lives have become public property’ (1). Whether it is child abuse, incurable disease or just a malingering angst about the unexamined life, it is victim culture that makes victims of us all – beautifully packaged, of course. Kate Winslet may not have read Murdoch’s novels, but hey, if she could just have a one-to-one with the great woman, she could talk about the demise of her marriage and the difficulties of being a single parent in the limelight. And she’s not the only one.

In the UK Daily Mail, Lynda Lee Potter recalls interviewing Barbara Pointon, the wife of Alzheimer’s sufferer Malcolm Pointon, three years ago – around the same time that Murdoch died. A documentary was being broadcast on ITV about Malcolm Pointon’s ‘descent into Alzheimer’s’. The title? Malcolm and Barbara: A Love Story, referring to Barbara Pointon’s unswerving devotion to a man changed beyond recognition (once a composer and, like Murdoch, an academic).

Like Iris, the Pointon documentary juxtaposed pre- and post-Alzheimer’s images to moving effect. There can be no denying that this was a tragic story – but now Lynda Lee Potter is back, and this time she’s brought everybody else with her: ‘Barbara’s story is my story’, people say over the phone. ‘Nearly every family in the land’, says Potter, ‘including mine, is affected by Alzheimer’s’. And when Barbara Pointon attends the UK premiere of Iris, we are told of her ‘glittering grey trouser suit’ and ‘billowing rose-strewn chiffon coat’. So there’s something for everybody.

Alzheimer’s may be a widespread disease, with 700,000 sufferers in the UK and no known cure, but it is not one that gets much attention from the UK government – just £6million on research, in fact (2). The same as the budget for Iris, which in turn is less than just the transport budget on the film Tomb Raider released in 2001. No wonder the doctor in Iris, a steely-eyed Tom Mannion, is so certain of the disease’s inevitable victory – and that as soon as Bayley realises something serious is up, he finds himself sitting next to Iris, surrounded by silent medical researchers, while she strives to recognise simple words or symbols on an overhead projector.

But this isn’t just about Alzheimer’s. It’s an elegy for a lost world. Iris’s closest friend, Janet Stone, is also dying. Unlike the Pointon’s story in a A Love Story, Iris wants to go to the Oscars. ‘The job’, a writer friend told Richard Eyre in the early stages of drafting a script, ‘is to make the audience cry’.

The clinching irony of the film of a writer’s life must be that the story is told more successfully in her novels. Time and again, Murdoch returned to the idea of enchantment and how, given a suitably charismatic or enigmatic person, it is those around him who will generate a magnetic field of attraction and reaction. He’s not doing the enchanting; it’s the others who can’t keep away. At the same time, they’re building up a false impression of this character – whom he loves, what he does. Such a process is evident in the strange cult of Iris for people who haven’t read any Murdoch – but maybe have read some Bayley.

The trend towards biopics of women writers, not for what they write but for how they lived, doesn’t end here. Future delights include Bad Blood (about the critic Lorna Sage) and The Hours, based on a novel about Virginia Woolf, and starring Nicole Kidman.

Iris’s tagline? ‘Her greatest talent was for life.’ The Sylvia Plath industry has a lot to answer for.

Michael Caines works and writes for the Times Literary Supplement

Read on:

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(1) Joan Smith: Did Iris Murdoch deserve Kate Winslet?, Independent 20 January 2002

(2) ‘So Where’s the Cure?’, Gita Mendis, Evening Standard, 22 January 2002

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