January 18, 2015
Having seen the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease up close — having lived with them actually, we don’t go out of our way to see the subject dramatized. The other night, however, we were glad we stumbled on Iris, a 2001 movie starring Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Bonneville. This film is based on the life of Iris Murdoch, a prominent British novelist and philosopher in the second half of the twentieth century. While she was a young woman teaching at Oxford, Murdoch fell in love with another Oxford academic, John Bayley, and eventually married him. It was what Puccini’s librettists might have called “a strange harmony of contrasts. Winslet was confident, high-spirited, articulate, and promiscuous, and Bayley was awkward, stuttering, shy, and virgin.
Their story, based on Bayley’s written accounts, is told in turns by flashbacks to the tumult of their early life together and a portrayal of the gradual deterioration of the elderly Iris’s mind. At the center of the story is John Bayley’s enduring love for this woman, even when her dementia frightens him and strains his patience. Dench and Winslet play the elder and younger Iris, and Broadbent and Bonneville play the elder and younger Bayley. This casting was inspired, because in both cases the premise that we are watching the same people at different stages of their lives is convincing. The quality of the performances is reflected by the fact that, among many accolades, Jim Broadbent won an Oscar and Judi Dench and Kate Winslet were nominated. Why Hugh Bonneville wasn’t nominated I can’t imagine. Those who are familiar with him in vehicles such as Belle and Downton Abbey will learn something about his range by watching him in this film. Incidentally, fans of Downton Abbey and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel might be pleased to see Penelope Wilton’s performance in a significant supporting role in Iris.
November 14, 2011
After we watched Lovely, Still, a 2008 film starring Ellen Burstyn and Martin Landau, I poked around on the Web and found the widest possible range of opinons — from a contemptible piece of trash to a work of genius. Put me down as confused, which I guess is somewhere between the extremes. This movie, directed and written, in part, by Nicholas Facker, concerns elderly Robert Malone (Landau), who appears as a solitary man who lives alone and works at a nearby supermarket — near enough that he has been walking to work since he crashed his car into his garage door.
During his lunch breaks at the market, Robert passes the time making pencil drawings that reveal a high level of skill that seems out of place in a man whose life is so drab and pointless. While he is drawing one day, he is approached by Mary (we are not told her last name), played by Burstyn. She introduces her self and tells him that she admires his drawing. When Robert returns home that evening, he finds the front door of his house ajar. Unaware that he didn’t close the door when he left for work, he cautiously enters the house to search for an intruder, and he finds one — Mary, who lives across the street with her daughter, Alex, played by Elizabeth Banks. As Mary tries to explain that she had seen the open door and wanted to make sure he was all right, the startled Robert screams at her to get out of his house.
When Robert calms down, however, he apologizes and the interchanges that follow end up with Robert accepting Mary’s invitation to take her to dinner the following night. Although Alex is wary of this, for reasons she does not state, Mary pursues the relationship which evolves into a romance, the first romance, Robert tells her, he has ever had. Meanwhile, Robert seeks and receives advice on courtship from his boss, Mike (Adam Scott), who seems to be more than reasonably solicitous of this confused old man, even going shopping with Robert to pick out Christmas presents for Mary. This movie is swathed in Christmas lights and sentimental music, and early on we became uneasy about the fairy tale. Eventually, Mary’s behavior and demeanor signal that something is seriously amiss — that there’s something she isn’t telling us. Sure enough, in the last few scenes, we learn that nothing in the film, including the relationships among the major characters, is what it seemed to be, and that the truth is as harshly real as the setup for it was cozily unreal. To complicate matters, we didn’t fully understand what had really happened and we couldn’t make heads or tails of the conclusion. As I poked around on the Web, I found that we were not alone. We speculated about what the writers might have been trying to convey, but we could find reasons to dismiss every theory we concocted.
That’s too bad, because in our view this film has a lot to recommend it: the musical choices, the photography, and particularly the exemplary performances by all four major players. The story, in spite of its obscure ending, also effectively calls attention to the loneliness of people whom we encounter in everyday life and to the possible consequences of old age.
So we liked it as far as we could, but we’re confused. Perhaps someone else will watch Lovely, Still and open our eyes.