Judging by the title of the film, and the subject at hand, you'd be forgiven for thinking Richard Eyre's film was about author Iris Murdoch and her famous novels such as The Bell and The Sea, the Sea, for which she won the Booker Prize. However, Iris is not concerned about Murdoch's rise to prominence, but more preoccupied with her stuttering companion John Bayley, and his struggle to both exist in Iris' frantic mental capacity and to cope with her eventual decline through Alzheimer's disease.
Iris is two stories in one. Firstly, it's a tale of Iris Murdoch in her youth, embarking on a philosophical attitude mixed with promiscuous sex (with the film taking an ambiguous stance on her alleged lesbian relationships) and her eventual acceptance of her dear friend John Bayley as the love of her life. The second story is almost inter-cut rhythmically with the first in equal measure, and tells of the later stages of Iris' life, in which she slowly slides into disease, forcing Bayley to devote himself entirely to her last days. This approach to Iris Murdoch is risky as it portions hardly any time to representing her as a great author, as it assumes audiences are already aware of her work and that they believe her to be a literary genius.
That said, the details of Murdoch's life that are shown are portrayed effectively, and this is mainly thanks to the fantastic performances of the main cast. Worthy of praise are four actors who represent only two characters. Kate Winslet portrays Iris Murdoch in her youth and Dame Judi Dench takes over the character in her later life. Winslet effectively portrays young Iris as intelligent yet sexually reckless (although this is with the help of much nudity on her part). Dench carries the baton well, and not only are you convinced that Winslet and Dench represent the same person at different ages, but you are also convinced of that character's later battle with Alzheimer's. This isn't through the use of repetitive dialogue or the usual 'mad antics' that are presented in true story TV-movies, but is through the use of the posture and stares of Dench herself. Arguably more interesting than Iris is her long-suffering husband John, played by Jim Broadbent in his later life and a very convincing Hugh Bonneville in his early days. Bonneville imitates Broadbent so well you'd be forgiven for thinking they were the same person. John is presented rather sympathetically as a loving and caring assistant of Iris, even when her attentions stray towards others. Perhaps this is because the film is based on the real John's memoirs on Iris. Broadbent is clearly on the crest of a wave, with this performance and his Like A Virgin antics in Moulin Rouge, and surely he must win Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars for one of these films at least.
Although Iris is slickly done and moves along at quite an acceptable pace, there isn't much to recommend about it other than the four excellent central performances. Take these fine performances away, and you are left with a film that skims the surface on many important issues of the author's life in order to keep the running time fairly low. However, the film is forgiven because rather than being a biography of a famous author, it instead deals with and succeeds in illustrating how Alzheimer's disease can take hold of even the most talented brains amongst us, and how it affects equally those closest to us.