Directed by Richard Eyre
Written by Richard Eyre and Charles Wood, Based upon the books by John Bayley
Starring Judi Dench, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent and Hugh Bonneville
When I was young, a horror movie to me was something that had blood and guts and jump-scares in it. Or something that was deeply disturbing on an emotional or spiritual level. Some of my favorite horror movies from when I was a kid/teenager are The Shining, The Omen and Children of the Corn.
Older though, my definitions of what makes a horror movie has changed. No longer are horror movies defined for me as only some blood and guts extravaganza. Over the years I’ve expanded my definition of them to include films where children die for no reason, siblings suddenly having cancer and dying, movies about marital discord, and the like.
In essence, as I’ve gotten to be a comfortable adult the thought of losing my way of life, and the people in it I love, terrifies me.
But what terrifies me most is the thought of completely losing control of either my mind or my body. As an avid runner, I can’t really fathom what I’d do if I couldn’t run anymore. I’ve had a couple of broken toes over the last couple years and when it put my running on hold for nearly two months each time, it was the worst. No day felt normal and all the time my bones were healing there was some part of me that didn’t feel me. So the thought that two months could be forever is…yeah, it’s the worst.
Similarly, as a writer I’m so wrapped up in my mind and live inside my own head much of the time that I can’t even imagine what it would be like to suddenly lose that. So in that way, Iris, which is about a writer succumbing to Alzheimer’s or Dementia – the movie doesn’t really make it clear which – is the absolute peak of a horror film.
What’s It About?
Iris Murdoch (Dench) is a celebrated English novelist who, in her mid-70s, develops Alzheimer’s. This saps her of most of her mental faculties and renders her unable to be who she used to be, and completely dependent on others. Over the film we see her husband, John Bayley (Broadbent), cope with her deterioration, while also having lengthy flashbacks to the past, when their younger selves (Winslet and Bonneville) are just getting their relationship off the ground.
The films in the running for Best Picture 2001 were A Beautiful Mind, Gosford Park, In The Bedroom, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and Moulin Rouge!. What do all those films have in common? I saw them all in the theater. The Best Director race varied slightly in that Ridley Scott was in for Black Hawk Down, and David Lynch was in for Mullholland Drive. The former I saw on DVD after it made that transition, the latter I saw in theaters.
Of course, this meant searching about the other categories for films I haven’t yet seen in order to have one here. There was Best Actor loser Sean Penn in I Am Sam, Best Animated Feature loser Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, and Best Foreign Language losers Elling (Norway) and Son of the Bride (Argentina).
The better choice, though, was to turn an eye on Iris, a Best Actress and Supporting Actress also-ran – for Judi Dench and Kate Winslet – and a Supporting Actor winner for Jim Broadbent.
As a film that seems ostensibly Oscar-bait, i.e. boring and long and grossly conventional, Iris is actually a breath of fresh air. Yes, it essentially tells a story of Alzheimer’s, but does not chug along with an air of importance or self-consciousness. Rather, this particular story is about how a husband is so devoted to his wife he can’t really fathom not taking care of her. And no, Iris is neither boring, nor long. At just a shade over 90 minutes, it’s actually a nice little morsel that never really has time to get boring. Last, it is hardly conventional, opening as it does with Kate Winslet underwater-nudity over the credits, and continuing on in a semi-choppy linear-non-linear sort of way.
Here, rather than tell the story straight-forward, from the 1950s through the late-1990s, Iris is a looping film. Unlike more conventional narratives, in Iris the past and present are shaded together in a way that draws to mind the idea that everything we do we’ve done before. Also draws to mind the way the human mind works – or at least how mine works – where there are connections, or echoes, of what we’ve done in everything we do, no matter how random or uncconected. Certainly, this allows the past to more directly inform the present, by being juxtaposed with it, even in little snippets, but also presents the idea that under normal conditions this is how the mind works. That it is always self-referential to some degree. And when the structure breaks a bit, or becomes more frantic and disconnected in some ways, it’s meant to show the deterioration of the mind at work.
No, by no means is Iris a revolutionary film, but in a large way it is a risky film and should be commended for using the form of the film to tell the story of the film.
That said, as much as I commend Iris for its narrative innovations, it can’t completely avoid being obvious in it’s metaphors and symbolism, particular in the use of water imagery to equate the mind and being out of it. Fortunately, while the metaphor is obvious, it’s not eye-rollingly terrible.
Better Than Best – Judi Dench
The Best Actress race 2001 was a tough group of names. Aside from Dench, who was sitting on a previous Oscar for Shakespeare in Love, there was eventual-winner Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball, Nicole Kidman for Moulin Rouge!, Sissy Spacek for In The Bedroom, and Renee Zellweger for Bridget Jones’s Diary. It’s impressive to think that a little more than two years later, everybody in the category would have a little gold man of their own. That Halle Berry triumphed is really something.
If I’m honest, Halle Berry underwhelms in Monster’s Ball. She underwhelmed me then, and underwhelms me now. Yes, there is a certain sort of emotionally naked bravura feeling to her performance, even as Halle Berry just seemed wrong in the role. Where you could have expected another actress to disappear into it, or do very subtle things with it – would Taraji P. Henson have been too young? – you’re never unaware you’re watching Halle Berry. At all times she looks like Halle Berry in a bad wig trying to convince you she can act, which is a fundamental problem – how good can the performance be if I’m always aware I’m watching her give one?
That said, was Berry not the best in the category? I mean, Spacek was fine, but her nomination seemed more a recognition of the fact that she was still capable of making movies than anything else. Plus, I don’t think a ‘fine’ performance is really good enough to win. Kidman’s performance is very much a go-for-broke kind of thing, and she practically mesmerizes, to the point you forget the material in the script is only so-so. Zellweger is also good, in that it was a ballsy move to put on the weight and stretch out from playing the ingenue she’d basically been. In it’s own way Zellweger’s role is as nakedly unflattering as Berry’s. That said, Zellweger’s accent in the role just seems…off.
Taking Dench out of the equation, I’d have to give the award to Kidman, then Zellweger, then Berry, then Spacek. The question then is, where does Dench fit in?
The difficult thing with Dench’s performance is while it’s good, so much of it hinges on Winslet’s performance. Because they play the same character at different points in time, the one naturally informs the other to the extent that you sometimes forget that Winslet did these scenes over there, while Dench did these others, and you can’t give credit to either for things they did not do. But of the two, Dench clearly has the heavier lift. She has to play a character that starts the film lucid and cogent and then very quickly loses that vibrancy, loses that mental grasp, as she slides into confusion and blankness. While the lucidity is easier to portray, it’s that later slip into blankness where you see Dench shine. Where another actor might ‘play’ blank, but still with life and action in their eyes, Dench manages to play completely blank. When you see her face you don’t see an actor working in a role, you see the role. So while I think I’d still favor Kidman over Dench – I just love those big roles, don’t I? – Dench is surely worthy.
Better Than Best – Kate Winslet
In 2001, Kate Winslet was definitely best known as the star of Titanic, for which she received her first Oscar nom for Best Actress, following up her previous nom for Best Supporting Actress for Sense and Sensibility. How did Winslet use the cachet of starring in the biggest film of all time? Did she pull a Leo and chase the money, getting paid $20 million for doing Danny Boyle’s adaptation of The Beach? No, she went off and made Hideous Kinky, Quills, and Holy Smoke. Or, to define it another way, she made three movies that garnered her zero Oscar noms, one SAG nom (Quills), and a total domestic gross of not even $10 million.
In other words, she hadn’t really capitalized on Titanic and was not the seemingly-perennial Oscar nominee Kate Winslet we know today. She was still making artistic choices, rather than ones driven by some other goal. So in 2001, when Winslet was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Iris, it was just her third go-round at the awards.
Just as Judi Dench would face an impressive list of actresses, Winslet’s 2001 competition is quite stunning: Helen Mirren for Gosford Park, Maggie Smith for Gosford Park, Marisa Tomei for In The Bedroom and Jennifer Connelly for A Beautiful Mind. Of that group, Smith had already won two Oscars, Tomei had already won once, Connelly would win her’s for A Beautiful Mind, and Mirren would shortly add her own. Winslet would make the category perfect with her own Best Actress Oscar for The Reader in 2009. Then, as now, this feels like a murders row and even if Connelly hasn’t yet been nominated again, and even if Tomei’s Oscar for My Cousin Vinny was the butt of unfair jokes and conspiracy theories for years, the Best Supporting Actress race in 2001 was not to be trifled with.
As the young-Iris, Kate Winslet gives a fine performance. In order for Dench to be able to truly sell the magnitude of the mental decline in old Iris, it’s necessary for Winslet to fill in the younger years in a way that show what she is declining from. In that way, it’s up to Winslet to show us the young, energetic Iris. The adventurous Iris. The intellectually superior, yet continually self-doubting Iris who does her best to hide the publication of her first novel from her friends, seemingly embarrassed that it would even be published. In that role, Winslet does well, but without having the chance to show the actual mental decline, her part seems a little one-note. Yes, she’s good, but when you consider it without reference to what Dench has to play with as the older Iris, nothing about Winslet’s Iris screams out as Oscar-worthy.
Still, it was nominated, so the question remains: Better than best? More to the point, is it better than Jennifer Connelly? Honestly, no. While A Beautiful Mind slips in my estimation year-to-year – as these things will – Connelly’s performance is the one aspect of it that remains high. When I re-watched it for The Best Picture Project I recall being somewhat underwhelmed by the film, and by Russell Crowe, but even then, Connelly shines. In the history of the Oscars there are lots of times where a winner can be debated as having been undeserving, but the Oscar for Jennifer Connelly is not one of them.
I Know You
I know this entry is supposed to be about Judi Dench and Kate Winslet, but I want to point out that Eleanor Bron appears here, in a small role early on, introducing Iris (Dench) for a speech she’s to give. If you have any affinity for the work of Stanley Donen you already know he directed her twice: As William Daniel’s annoying wife on the road trip with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney in Two For The Road, and as the maybe-love-interest to Dudley Moore in Bedazzled. Or, if you have a thing for Ken Russell, you know she played the pretentious, annoying lover to Alan Bates in the adaptation of Women In Love.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 The Exorcist also scared the bejesus out of me the first time I saw it, but as you know from reading this series, it’s lost some of that power. As for the other three named, The Shining is in my all-time top five, and I certainly have love for The Omen and Children of the Corn, b0th of which still have the ability to give me the creeps.
 Curiously, the 2001 Foreign Language Film category might be the one I’m most well-versed in in cinema history, having seen the winner, No Man’s Land (Bosnia-Herzegovina), and also-rans Amelie (France) and Lagaan (India) relatively contemporary to their theatrical release.
 Best Supporting Actress (1998)
 Best Actress for The Hours (2002)
 Best Actress for Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
 Best Supporting Actress for Cold Mountain (2003)
 To be fair I am not a dialect coach, so maybe it’s right on.
 Domestic box office, according to Box Office Mojo — $1.2 million
 Domestic box office, according to Box Office Mojo — $7 million
 Domestic box office, according to Box Office Mojo — $1.7 million
 The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Best Actress 1969) and California Suite (Best Supporting Actress 1978)
 My Cousin Vinny (Best Supporting Actress 1992)
 The Queen (Best Actress 2006)