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Or at least Bayley’s ability to step into Iris’ world, which according to the movie seemed like a foreign country from the moment the two met at Oxford. Murdoch frequently disappeared on Bayley, and was candid to a fault about her “friends,” the lovers she took of both sexes. She certainly didn’t look the part of a sex bomb — she dressed baggily and famously sported an unkempt pudding-basin hairdo. Yet Kate Winslet, who couldn’t look plain if she wore an old sack (her wardrobe comes pretty close), conveys as the young Murdoch exactly the forthright charisma that drew others to this intense and uncompromising woman. Indeed, one wonders what the real John Bayley — portrayed as a young man by Hugh Bonneville and in old age by Jim Broadbent — must think of his doddery, compulsively quiescent movie persona, set against the vitality of young Iris and the steely dignity she grew into before Alzheimer’s cruelly stripped her of what she loved best: the capacity to use words to explore the possibilities of freedom and goodness.
Murdoch and Bayley lived in an age and a social class that afforded them the luxury of an unselfconscious bohemianism which had nothing to do with wearing cool clothes or being seen at the right soirees. It meant, quite simply, the freedom to live as they chose. Eyre, who’s far from naive about the marriage, doesn’t gloss over its complex power matrix. Like many adventurers, Iris was often childishly dependent on her partner. Her increasing dementia pushed this dependence to extremes that drove Bayley up the wall — while allowing him to glory in the fact that at last he had her to himself. Which in turn allowed him that “Uh-oh,” the willingness to join her in her lost world rather than attempt to control it.
One can’t imagine these two children ever having kids. By any current yardstick, their marriage seems woefully unequal, co-dependent and eccentric. That was its beauty. They were everything to each other, and their marriage — like many a partnership that works — was fed by an emotional give-and-take that had nothing to do with who did what chores. Bayley was Murdoch’s rock; Murdoch drew Bayley into a life he could never have dreamed of having on his own. “It’s a novelist’s privilege to see how odd everyone is,” Murdoch tells a rapt audience in a public lecture. Murdoch and Bayley had to have been one of the oddest couples in the world — and one of the most enchanting.
IRIS | Directed by RICHARD EYRE | Written by EYRE and CHARLES WOOD | Based on the memoirs Elegy for Iris: A Memoir and Iris and Her Friends by JOHN BAYLEY | Produced by ROBERT FOX and SCOTT RUDIN | AMC Century 14
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