A triumph on the casting side but less so dramatically, Richard Eyre's "Iris" fails to do full justice to its subject, the late British novelist Iris Murdoch (1919-99), as it shuttles back and forth between her bright-eyed youth and her final years defined by Alzheimer's.

A triumph on the casting side but less so dramatically, Richard Eyre’s “Iris” fails to do full justice to its subject, the late British novelist Iris Murdoch (1919-99), as it shuttles back and forth between her bright-eyed youth and her final years defined by Alzheimer’s. Despite strong playing from Judi Dench and (especially) Kate Winslet as the older and younger versions of the scribe, plus sturdy support from both Jim Broadbent and Hugh Bonneville as her devoted husband John Bayley, the movie fails to build much of an emotional head of steam. It progressively skews more toward the older Iris’ terminal decline than to a fully drawn study of Murdoch the writer and woman. Upscale female auds look like its greenest pasture, with more general biz limited. Pic gets a brief Oscar-qualifying run Stateside starting Dec. 14 and opens in the U.K. mid-January.

Though it could be argued that Winslet, even with her ragamuffin, pageboy haircut and Rubenesque figure, does the young Murdoch more than a few favors, she’s still a remarkable match for the older Dench, both physically and facially. Pic’s striking opening sequence, which cross-cuts between giant closeups of the two swimming underwater, prepares the viewer for the shuttlecock structure of the whole movie, segueing to scenes of the older Iris writing in longhand and the younger bicycling through the English countryside.

The movie’s opening reels are, in fact, the only ones that give any idea of Murdoch the artist — author of such books as “The Bell,” “A Severed Head” and “The Italian Girl” — as the older Iris is introduced at a fund-raising dinner at Somerville College, Oxford U. As she gives a speech on education, happiness and freedom of the mind, the precision of her language and clarity of expression give a hint of why Bayley fell for her love of words. Thereafter, there’s hardly a mention of individual books or more tastings of her personal philosophy or writings through which the viewer could identify with Bayley’s passion, and thus feel an emotional hook to the woman herself.

After sketching their first meeting at Oxford in the early ’50s, where Iris is an opinionated free spirit entirely convinced of her destiny as a writer and Bayley is a humble lecturer, latter-day scenes in the mid-’90s between the couple soon start in on her growing loss of memory as Alzheimer’s sets in. “I feel as if I’m sailing into darkness,” she says, but insists she wants to keep busy writing, to “keep the words coming.”

There’s a quietly scary moment when Iris fails to recognize an advance copy of her (final) novel “Jackson’s Dilemma” and follows Bayley around their chaotically untidy cottage “like a water buffalo” (his words), repeating things time and again. Dench is superb in such scenes, skillfully avoiding both caricature and sentimentality; as the ever-patient Bayley, Broadbent is an equal match, suggesting his character’s own heroic effort to stay sane as the love of his life slowly crumbles before his eyes.

However, as Iris retreats into her own world, practically speechless, unable to recognize even old friends like college chum Janet Stone (Penelope Wilton), the ’90s material starts to tread water dramatically. There are only so many ways you can dramatize someone dying from a wasting disease, and, with Iris robbed of her gift for language and her stubborn personality, the spotlight falls on Bayley who, apart from a long-suppressed outburst of rage one night, is largely a passive observer.

This makes the flashbacks to the younger Iris more and more of a tonic as the pic progresses, especially in Winslet’s impressively chipper playing. But the brief flashbacks are not given a chance to establish a momentum of their own. They gloss lightly over a mass of potentially fascinating material: Murdoch’s considerable sexual appetites, despite her frumpy looks, for both men and women; the exact nature of her and Bayley’s “bohemian” marriage; why she falls for the awkward, stuttering Bayley (Bonneville, finely repping his character’s sense of privilege at being allowed to share Iris’ world) instead of a self-possessed young blade like Maurice (Samuel West); and her own start as a published writer.

All of these are touched on, but briefly, which — given the quality of Winslet’s perf and her more vital, pro-active character — is damaging for the picture as a whole. Across barely 90 minutes of running time, Dench’s material has been given a lopsided prominence, making the second half little more than a predictable tale of two eccentric old folks.

It’s been almost two decades since legit director Eyre turned his hand to a theatrical feature, and — at least in the final edited version — there’s little sign of the control of mood and character he showed in “The Ploughman’s Lunch” and “Loose Connections” in the early ’80s.

Aside from Winslet and Bonneville, other actors hardly get a look-in, with Juliet Aubrey (as the younger Janet Stone) almost a walk-on. West and Wilton are OK in brief turns.

Production values are evocative, with ’50s Oxford convincingly sketched in Gemma Jackson’s production design and Ruth Myers’ natural costumes, and James Horner’s score encourages emotional involvement without hitting obvious chords. Overall, pic’s feel is somewhere between a telemovie and a genuine bigscreen job.

Iris

U.K.-U.S.

Production

A Miramax (in U.S.)/Buena Vista Intl. (in U.K.) release of a BBC Films, Intermedia (U.K.)/Mirage Enterprises (U.S.) production. Produced by Robert Fox, Scott Rudin. Executive producers, Anthony Minghella, Sydney Pollack, Guy East, David M. Thompson, Tom Hedley. Directed by Richard Eyre. Screenplay, Eyre, Charles Wood, based on John Bayley's books "Iris: A Memoir" and "Elegy for Iris."

Crew

Camera (color), Roger Pratt; editor, Martin Walsh; music, James Horner (solo violin, Joshua Bell); production designer, Gemma Jackson; art director, David Warren; costume designer, Ruth Myers; sound (Dolby), Jim Greenhorn; assistant director, Martin Harrison; casting, Celestia Fox. Reviewed at Century Preview Theater 2, London, Nov. 26, 2001. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Iris Murdoch - Judi Dench
John Bayley - Jim Broadbent
Young Iris - Kate Winslet
Young John - Hugh Bonneville
Janet Stone - Penelope Wilton
Younger Janet - Juliet Aubrey
Young Maurice - Samuel West
Old Maurice - Timothy West
College Principal - Eleanor Bron
TV Presenter - Joan Bakewell
With: Kris Marshall, Tom Mannion, Derek Hutchinson, Juliet Howland, Saira Todd, Emma Handy.
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