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Review: 'Iris' sharp, well-acted film bio

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- The film "Iris" opened for just one week last December in order to make it eligible for this year's Academy Awards. It's now opening nationwide, and in case you were wondering whether or not "Iris" is really any good, Tuesday's Academy Award nominations should put to rest any lingering doubts.

The movie's three main stars, Dame Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent and Kate Winslet, all received acting nominations -- best actress, best actor, and best supporting actress, respectively. However, that doesn't mean that this deeply personal character piece, which looks long and hard at a 40-year love affair -- and the travails and complexities of that union -- will be compelling viewing for all.

Broadbent plays John Bayley, the long-suffering husband of Iris Murdoch, a novelist with an extraordinary personality who became an iconic presence for an entire generation of Brits. A writer, a philosopher, a libertine spirit who freely explored her sexuality, Murdoch was not an easy woman to live with, let alone love.

The film's screenplay by Richard Eyre, who also directed, and Charles Wood is based on Bayley's memoirs "Elegy For Iris" and "Iris And Her Friends." However, much of the film is either fiction or filled with facts that have been transposed or compressed. The result is that "Iris" is a highly subjective look at the relationship between these two strikingly individual people, and the results are tender, unflinching, raw and wonderful.

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Kate Winslet and Judi Dench star in 'Iris'

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RESOURCES Review: 'Iris' 

Dench plays Iris in later life, when she is facing the ravages of Alzheimer's Disease. Winslet plays Iris during her younger years, when she was at the peak of her powers, intellectually and artistically. Hugh Bonneville plays the younger Bayley in certain flashback scenes. In all, the film covers Murdoch's life from her early days at Oxford in the 1950s to her tragic death in 1999.

At its core, "Iris" is about the enduring power of love, and the way that love changes in order to survive. It's about how a disease such as Alzheimer's (at times the disease is almost its own character) can completely rob a person of their humanity -- but it can also expose that humanity in a way never seen before.

This film is a fascinating journey into the subtle shades of human experience, with no neat little conclusions tied up in bows. You're invited into the world occupied by these unique individuals -- no quick edits, no jam cuts, no jarring music, no car chases or special effects.

Some may find "Iris" as tedious as a long boat ride to China, but they're missing the point. This beautifully crafted film is played to perfection by all. At times it's almost voyeuristic in its intimacy. But it's about life -- real life.

Trivia note: the last time two women received nominations as best actress and best supporting actress for playing the same character in the same film was back in 1997, when Kate Winslet and Gloria Stuart were both nominated for "Titanic." Neither actress won.

"Iris" opens nationwide on Friday, February 15.




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