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  • Writer's pictureEllen Cheshire

Iris Murdoch Remembered

Updated: May 5, 2023

Today (15 July) would have been Iris Murdoch's 97th Birthday. Born in 1919 she died aged 80 in 1999.

In my book Bio-Pics: a life in pictures I explore four films about writers, one of which was Richard Eyre's 2001 film Iris. Here's an extract ...

Screenwriters Eyre and Wood used John Bayley's 1998 and 1999 memoirs of his wife, Iris Murdoch (Elegy for Iris, Iris: A Memoir and Iris and Her Friends) as the source material for Iris. By using these first-hand accounts of Bayley’s emotional relationship with Murdoch, the film offers a tender portrait of marriage and love, first, a writer’s life, second.

Iris’s publicity material announced, ‘Miramax is proud to present a film about one of the most extraordinary women of her time. With two of the most acclaimed actresses of their time.’ This statement makes no mention either of the film's subject or the two actresses playing her. Nor is there any mention of what made her 'extraordinary'. The poster image is striking black and white portraits of Judi Dench (in the foreground) and Kate Winslet (behind). Only half their faces are shown, making clear that these two actresses together make a whole.

Eschewing a chronological approach, with a young Murdoch (Winslet) segueing to an older (Dench), the film’s structure offers two parallel timelines and Eyre and Wood’s screenplay interweaves the past and present (two narratives, fifty years apart). We see Bayley (Hugh Bonneville and Jim Broadbent) and Murdoch at Oxford in the 1930s/40s falling in love and their life together in the 1990s dealing with Murdoch's decline into Alzheimer’s.

Her loss of memory, creating a sense of loss of one's self is central. It is a film about relationships, and the impact illness has on it, not the illness per se. It is a film about storytelling, not the act of writing.

The portrait of intellect dimmed is played out alongside the earlier timeframe showing a young and vibrant Murdoch, clearly Bayley's intellectual superior. As a young man he cannot keep up with her. On a bicycle ride, Bayley desperately tries to catch up and hold on to Iris who tells him to, ‘Keep tight hold of me and it’ll be alright’. This cuts to the older Murdoch, following him around, nudging him, forgetting things until he shouts out in despair, leaving her confused. This is a film about people loving one another, needing one another. The fact that it is about real people (and one who had reached such intellectual greatness) makes the film more complex and more emotionally devastating, encapsulated by Murdoch asking of Bayley, ‘We all worry about going mad, don’t we? How would be know? Those of us who live in our minds, anyway. Other people would tell us – wouldn’t they?’

Eyre shows them young and alive, but having seen their final darker years, makes these earlier happier times all the more powerful and heart-breaking because we know how their story will end. We know their future (which neither of the young couple do) and we in their present, know their past (which Murdoch is beginning to forget) – leaving Bayley, a literary critic and writer as repository of both their memories and chronicler of their lives.

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