Iris Murdoch (Kate Winslet/Judi Dench) is vibrant and free-spirited whereas John Bayley (Hugh Bonneville/Jim Broadbent) is lovable, but rather awkward and timid. A seemingly unlikely match, the two fall in love during their student years in Oxford and become an inseparable intellectual duo for the next decades to come. When Iris is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, John gradually turns from husband to carer as she’s disappearing bit-by-bit.
Iris and Iris
“We all worry about going mad, don’t we? How would we know? Those of us who live in our minds, anyway. Other people would tell us – wouldn’t they?”
The movie demonstrates with subtle artistry the tremendous difference between Iris and Iris with Alzheimer’s. The two storylines of her life running parallel each other shows us the harrowing reality of the disease. She is not just getting old with her great spirit intact – her spirit is leaving her. Using different tones to illustrate her life while vivacious and carefree, then alternating it with the bluish-greyish hue as her mind disintegrates also symbolises this contrast between the two Irises. It almost feels like one is watching the story of two different people, not because of the age difference, but because there seems to be only traces left of the once brilliantly bright, joyful woman. Contextualizing dementia thusly allows for a much starker contrast than witnessing the portrayal of slow decay throughout the movie. Accordingly, the dynamic alternation of the mosaic pieces of young and old Iris form the conclusion on the weight of this tragedy for her and John.
„That’s it, yes. Puzzled”
The intertwined stories are contrasting the difference between the person with dementia compared to their ’original self’; how the individual becomes first confused and lost in their own world then ’emptied’ by the disease.
Iris finds it more and more troublesome to put pen to paper and convey her thoughts the way she knew best – by writing them down and turn them into intriguing novels. Her thoughts are not coming together and the words are not arriving to describe the thoughts. She finds herself at a loss for words when conducting simple daily conversations; the postman becomes ’the person who brings the post’ and the tennis racket is now a ’tennis thingy’. When invited to a TV interview as a renowned writer and academic, she finds herself forgetting the question mid-sentence as she’s answering it. These experiences would be humiliating and baffling for anyone, let alone a famous writer and philosopher, such as her.
„There is only one freedom of any importance whatsoever – that of the mind”
Seeing Iris and John both at young and old age, makes the film all the more heart-breaking; little did they know, how it will all end. As enchanting as her childlike enthusiasm is as a young woman, Iris’s ’childish’ behaviours that come with her disease are distressing to witness. The movie lines up plenty of parallels of that nature reminding us of how much context matters. Uninterpretable and bizarre behaviours that might only make sense to her – such as placing rocks frantically on top of paper one after the other – could be interpreted as a child’s playful way of exploring the world around them, but in her case it’s a disturbing and undoubted sign of regression. The strongest image among all is when the great Oxford philosopher is watching the Teletubbies on TV and keeps repeating their words after them. Her persevering repetition of words and behaviours are akin to that of a child who is beginning to learn about and interact with the world around them. Iris’s hysteric outburst at her best friend’s funeral is also a rather infantile expression; shouting her raw pain without filtering or caring for ’social norms’. Refusal to bathe, go to bed or wandering during the night and running away are behaviours parents tend to worry about – and loved ones who look after those with dementia.
Deterioration and devotion
John: – „No, it won’t win”
Iris: – „It will win”
As the movie is operates strongly with the visuals portraying the couple young and old – bright colours alternating with the dull greyness in old age – it is even more remarkable how authentically Iris is deteriorating physically throughout her storyline as her old self. She gradually becomes more neglected, as her skin goes greyish, her hair is unkempt and her clothes seemingly unwashed all making her look abandoned. When a policewoman visits John after Iris disappears, seeing the home through her eyes puts the weight John is carrying into a new perspective. Their home looks neglected and messy – similarly to Iris. It highlights the difficulty of caring for someone while also having to manage other important aspects of daily life when the person stuck in the carer’s role is in old age as well – which is often the case with the spouse of someone with Alzheimer’s. John, as devoted as he is, feels the heavy toll this takes on him and his otherwise peaceful and patient person. One night, all the resentment and frustration stirring in him like a big bundle of pain bursts out; understandable for someone who’s caring for his wife who cannot appreciate or reciprocate in a meaningful manner. Feelings of guilt for arguing or anger with Iris for how she is currently and dwelling on the indiscretions of her past leaves John feeling lonely and struggling to cope with it all. Though the situation is hopeless, he never stops cherishing his once outstandingly bright and beautiful wife in her dulling old age with dementia. The film is a touching elegy to Iris and her beautiful mind along with a tribute to John’s devotion to her beloved wife, even when her Alzheimer’s has already ’won’.