Affliction of any kind never goes out of fashion with the Academy, so don't be surprised if Judi Dench is breathing down Oscar's neck for a second time come March. Don't be shocked too if co-stars Jim Broadbent and Kate Winslet join her on the podium.
Based on John Bayley's memoirs, this four-hander charts the courtship and love between novelist Iris Murdoch (Winslet/Dench) and literature professor Bayley (Bonneville/Broadbent), stretching from their early years at Oxford in the '50s, through to Murdoch's battle with Alzheimer's Disease in the '90s. The film hops back and forth between Iris' lusty youth as a budding writer and the years toward the end of her life, when her once fertile mind was ravaged by the disease.
Winslet's youthful Iris is, naturally, more fun, having lots of sex, scandalising her nerdish suitor Bayley (Hugh Bonneville, Hugh Grant's banker chum in Notting Hill), and generally being witty and charming. Dench, as old Iris, starts off as an amiable eccentric, but ends up staring vacantly at Teletubbies as her mental universe stagnates.
Iris is not without flaws: Richard Eyre's direction is unadventurous and you come out knowing little about Murdoch's work - - she's introduced as a "noted philosopher as well as author of 26 novels", but that's your lot. But this is an actor's showcase, and on that front it delivers. Dench is superb, faultlessly conveying the devastation and terrible irony of her situation; Broadbent gives his second great performance of the year, after Moulin Rouge, as Murdoch's fanatically devoted husband; and Winslet is simply magnificent. Proving again that she's still streets ahead of most actresses her age, she effortlessly brings a vibrant and intellectual woman to vivid life.
You won't learn that much about Iris Murdoch (and even less about her work), but the four leads, especially Kate Winslet, are all outstanding.