The BBC-TV evening newscast on February 8, 1999 announced the death of Iris Murdoch, at 79, before it announced the death of Jordan's King Hussein. Murdoch lost fewer wars and wrote more novels (26), and besides she was British. Reputations are fluid, but Murdoch remains for the moment Albion's most prominent woman intellectual since the drowning of Virginia Woolf.

Water is the first and final image in Iris, a film based on two volumes of memoirs — Elegy for Iris and Iris and Her Friends — by John Bayley, the professor and literary critic who was married to Murdoch for 43 years. Young and old, she was fond of swimming, often nude, in England's nippy, mucky rivers. We float back and forth between aquatic images of Murdoch young and buoyant and the older Murdoch drifting toward oblivion. "I feel as if I'm sailing into darkness," she says toward the end, during a rare moment of lucidity before the implacable erosion of her extraordinary mental powers. We watch one of the best minds of England's post-war generation succumb to Alzheimer's disease. A playful philosopher and a pensive novelist, she was preoccupied with the theme of freedom. "There is only one freedom of any importance whatsoever," Dame Iris in her prime tells an attentive audience at Oxford, "and that is of the mind." Iris traces the defeat of a free spirit in the unmooring of her uncommon mind.

Aside from a glimpse of her first novel, Under the Net, and her last, Jackson's Dilemma, Iris makes no attempt to explain just what it was about Murdoch's achievements in print that distinguish her from less talented contemporaries. A few obligatory scenes show the writer in her natural habitat, writing, but since the greatest drama in a great writer's life is on the page, director Richard Eyre, an accomplished veteran of the English theater, opts not to try to put it on the screen. For all his formidable achievements as scholar and critic, Bayley becomes a fuddy-duddy mate with mismatched socks. Iris is instead a love story, in which the lovers happen to be writers and spouses. The film, which might more justly have been titled John, is an affecting account of John Bayley's experiences as gawky swain, indulgent husband, and devoted nurse to the remarkable Iris Murdoch. A man who makes his peace with his wife's brazen infidelities, he is allowed one scene of rage against betrayal by the brutal way of things. Murdoch gets star billing because she is and was a cynosure, a woman of prodigious energies and appetites whom Bayley had to share with other men and women. His memoir is both a touching conjugal memorial and a spear-carrier's revenge on the diva. "You must accept me as I am," explains Murdoch to the smitten, stammering, donnish Bailey, who does, but still has the final word on a woman who lived through language. "If one doesn't have words, how does one think?" asks Murdoch, sensing her vocabulary, her thoughts, and her identity slipping irretrievably away.

For all her lovers and admirers, Iris is a two-character piece performed by four actors: Kate Winslet as Iris in her thirties, Judi Dench as her septuagenarian self, Hugh Bonneville as the younger Bailey, and Jim Broadbent as his elder self. All inhabit their characters as comfortably as Murdoch and Bayley did the clutter of their untidy house. The wonder is in the continuity between Winslet and Dench, between Bonneville and Broadbent. The horror is in the mutability of identity, the muting of the eloquent Dame Iris Murdoch. By constantly crosscutting between scenes of Murdoch young and old, the lioness of literary England and the crone who stares at Teletubbies and pees on the floor, Iris underscores the loss. "I can't catch up with you!" young Bayley shouts as he and Murdoch race their bicycles down a country road. By the end of the film, he does, and so, alas, do we.

"Watching a noble mind o'erthrown"
Dir. Richard Eyre; writ. Richard Eyre and Charles Wood, from memoirs by John Bayley; feat. Kate Winslet, Hugh Bonneville, Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Penelope Wilton, Samuel West, Timothy West (R)
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