Iris – Class, Melodramatic Alzheimer & Not Murdoch

Iris is a formulaic and superficial melodrama supposedly on Iris Murdoch. Murdoch was an important philosopher and novelist who is here reduced to a little more than a spoilt brat. Kate Winslet as Murdoch is terrible, perhaps it is because of the weak script and her undeniable beauty. Murdoch wasn’t that pretty, but had plenty of personality and intelligence. Beauty, especially in this case, distracts and masks the substance of a person. A not so pretty but more commanding actress would have allowed Murdoch’s personality to emerge a little more. Judy Dench is the older Murdoch with Alzheimer with the usual high-pitched melodrama and detestable banality. It’s not Judy Dench’s fault. The writing is astonishingly bad with no possible way out.

Class: Murdoch’s character is reduced to a few ‘eccentricities’, mostly cycling fast, swimming naked and having sex (yawn!). ‘Eccentricities’ are however part and parcel of the British upperclass. It is a ‘presentation of the self’ that is as conventional as you get. Murdoch was a lot more complex than that. She had a place in that privileged ‘club’, although she was Irish so perhaps she didn’t quite ‘belong’ there. She certainly challenged it. A particularly cringing scene is when Iris and her husband John Bayley (Jim Broadbent) muse on the meaning of a ‘bag for life’ in Tesco sounding pretentious, shallow and pathetic. If I were a relative, I would sue!

The (Melo)Drama of Alzheimer: with its ambition of being heart-wrenching, the film gives us a portrayal of Alzheimer that revels in tragedy, loss, and shouts. I’m not suggesting that suffering from Alzheimer is not tragic, only that the non-subtlety of the film makes one cringe throughout.  Alzheimer poses an interesting question about personhood. The person forgets who she is. She has no consciousness of who she is and was. This is quite extreme and cannot be compared with any other changes we experience in life. We don’t change personality in the course of our lives and our sense of who we are shapes our actions. Alzheimer impacts in such a way that it should move us to question what we mean by personhood. Further, what kind of consciousness have people with Alzheimer? Being able to do things doesn’t tell us anything about consciousness and consciousness is not simply being awake, like some neuroscientists understand it. I would perhaps distinguish between consciousness (self-awareness?) and personhood (sense of self?). The problem, however, is that the hype about neuroscientific studies of ‘consciousness’ (=the brain!) hinders real understanding. I’d like to think poetic language, like film, could convey complex human experience better. That’s not the case of this film.

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