Sunday, April 09, 2017

Iris: Piece of Mind

Shortly after reading Iris Murdoch's novel Jackson's Dilemma, I heard her husband John Bayley interviewed on NPR about his memoir.  Iris welcomed the reporter to their home with courteous detachment.  As we heard her shuffle off, Bayley told the reporter that he would continue to love the woman he lived with, and professed not to worry about the brilliant woman he'd married: "Wherever she's going, she has already arrived" is what I remember him saying.  I'd experienced my grandmother's dementia; her daughter's symptoms wouldn't show for another twelve years; but I was struck by Bayley's conception of dementia as a "place."

Making the movie Iris of his memoir just a year later, writer-director Richard Eyre made use of that idea to meld the love story of young Iris with the love of Bayley for Iris at her end.

Eyre's dilemma was that both stories he wanted to tell had foregone conclusions.  The moment that modest young Bayley (Hugh Bonneville) stops at a party to stare in awe at charismatic young Iris (Kate Winslett) , we know that somehow they're going to marry.  The moment regal elderly Iris (Judi Dench) fails to recall the Prime Minister's name, her young doctor tells us that dementia is going to win.

The key to bringing both stories to a satisfying close lay in the image from a brain scan. Elderly Bayley (Jim Broadbent) asks about a dark area that the doctor can't explain.  Bayley clings to the idea that there's a room in Iris's brain where her mind could still be alive, though "different."  To illustrate, Eyre takes us to the rocky shore where he pictures Iris sitting among hefty smooth stones, looking out at the waves, clutching a notebook.  Her friends hope she'll write, and, in a way, she does:  she rips out page after page, placing a stone on each one.  In flashbacks, we've heard the erudite Murdoch speaking of freedom and love for living beings, nature, even stones.  So this is a demonstration of another kind of expression.

In the parallel story, young Bayley, tortured by jealousy, needs to learn from Iris whether he has a place among the many "worlds" she inhabits and creates in her promiscuous, prolific life.


Thirty years before the events at the end of the movie, Murdoch wrote Bruno's Dream, concerning this very idea, that the world is in the invalid's mind even while he is in the world.  Read more in my appreciation of Iris Murdoch's novels, The Mind Plays Tricks.

[Portrait, 1986, by Tom Phillips.  TomPhillips.co.uk    The portrait is of real-life Iris with images from her fiction.]

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