Kate Winslet talks about Iris Murdoch


By David Macaulay

Kate Winslet as Iris Murdoch

It is an idyllic day in Southwold, Suffolk. The young Iris Murdoch runs down to the chilly sea hand-in-hand with the love of her life, John Bayley. They throw stones into the water and gawky Bayley dons a scuba mask and wades into the sea in an overcoat.

In another scene she stands in a bright blue beach hut rattling with pebbles and shells, wearing a mischievous smile as wide as the cloudless Suffolk horizon.

The movie Iris is a tale of enduring love between the prolific and promiscuous novelist and the awkward Oxford don Bayley. It is an intellectual love that’s at times childish.

For Kate Winslet, the actress cast in the role of Murdoch, life was not imitating art. As she passionately embraced her co-star, Hugh Bonneville, her husband Jamie Threapleton was holed up in  hotel nearby. Four months later they split up.

Does Winslet still believe in enduring love? She falters briefly during a press conference at the Dorchester Hotel.

“I’m not a cynical person and I live for the moment. Yes, of course it can exist. Absolutely,” she said not totally convincingly, before heading for the safe ground.  “Iris and John were a true love story. They made each other extremely happy.”

While Winslet sidesteps the question of her own romances, she glows when she talks about her daughter Mia. She did not mention Threapleton or new love Sam Mendes, the film director.

Winslet made her name in the blockbuster movie Titanic but surprised the movie world by eschewing further Hollywood blockbusters to accept roles in smaller, more offbeat British-made films.

Richard Eyre’s Iris falls into this category but looks set to be one of those rare movies that will prove to be a success on both sides of the Atlantic without receiving the Titanic treatment.

On the face of it, a raw film about a novelist’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease does not sound like a recipe for box office success. But these are not normal times, and post September 11 cinema goers are looking for something different from the traditional diet of action movies.

 Iris is a profound and moving film in which Winslet sparkles as the vivacious young Murdoch, a woman with a lust for life, not to mention a series of men and women while she is with Bayley, even though he is the man she gives her mind to.

 But it is Dame Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent as the older Murdoch and Bayley who steal the show by taking the relationship to a new bittersweet level. They are tipped for Oscar nominations.

 The autumn and winter of Murdoch’s life rather than the spring days of bicycle rides and skinny-dipping in Oxford’s rivers make the most compelling viewing. From being a distinguished scholar and a woman of books, one of England’s most accomplished writers, Murdoch was transformed by Alzheimer’s into a rambling wreck incapable of reading the word “dog.”

For those of us who remember the media reports about Murdoch suffering from “writer’s block,” watching Iris feels somewhat too close to reality for comfort.

Eyre uses the juxtaposition of Winslet and Dench to devastating effect, nowhere more so than in the scenes filmed at Southwold.

 While the novelist as a young woman frolics on the sand before Bayley’s friend Janet Stone (Penelope Wilton), Dench stares moodily out to the sea that spawned her most famous novel and places smooth rocks on slivers of notepaper. When Janet asks her to sign a copy of her latest novel, she throws it angrily to the ground. Janet is also seriously ill with cancer, her face set in a mask of pain.

But later that night, outside the candle-lit beach hut there is a moving scene in which Murdoch responds to an old tune and holds Janet tight in a last dance to the music of time for both women.

In an era of escapism and magic depicted by The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, it is sobering to see a film that does not flinch at the grim realities of mortality and old age, a film that addresses the degradation and sheer horror of Alzheimer’s head-on.

There is an abyss between Winslet’s wild, young character and the sad old woman played by Dench, which is the simple but effective key to the movie’s poignancy.

Winslet is well attuned to growing older. She’s made a living in acting since she was 13 and is fast becoming a British movie institution. She was nominated for an Oscar for Titanic at the age of 22. When she shot Holy Smoke two years later, she said she felt as though she was in her mid 30s. “God, I don’t know how to be young anymore,” she said.

Now in her mid-20s she has the attitude of a woman in her 30s. She says she is bemused by her current status as a mega star and prefers to talk about Murdoch.

“I knew about Iris Murdoch but I didn’t know about her work,” she said. “I had to be very selective about the research I did because the film was not about the novels but about the material from John Bayley’s books. I simply read his books over and over again and spent some time with John Bayley. I did not feel the need to go out and read all her novels.

“It confirmed things I knew and felt about her. She loved people, she loved things and had an incredible zest for life.”

Despite the close interweaving of the young Murdoch and the older writer in the film, Winslet did not discuss her portrayal of the role with Dench beforehand.

“When I first saw the film I remember thinking ‘Thank God we pulled it off.’ We did feel similar, even though from the outside we’re nothing alike- I’m about five inches taller than Judi and there are a lot of obvious differences. I was relieved that we did feel like the same woman.”

Winslet found few problems dealing with the two very distinct plots going on in the film that splits Murdoch’s life in two. “They really were two separate stories. I was giving the sense of the young Iris as an absolute stick of dynamite, which is what she was,” she said.

She recalled how Eyre told her it had been wonderful to work with Dench and Broadbent but he was glad to move on and shoot the scenes of the younger Murdoch because “it’s so much happier.”

“Richard has experience of losing somebody to Alzheimer’s and it was nice of him to get involved in some of the spingtime stuff,” she said.

Water was very important to Murdoch. The novelist and her husband were keen swimmers. One of the last entries made in her journal in 1996 read: “We swam in the Thames, in our usual place for this time of year.”

The film opens with a scene in which Winslet swims naked underwater. “I love it. I do love water and I always have done,” she said. “If you ask my father who was first to go in the sea, it was me tearing down the beach,” the Titanic star said.

 Nudity is an issue the actress shrugged off with a laugh. “If anyone is used to taking their clothes off it is me,” she said. “You never get used to nudity and I certainly don’t look forward to it. This was something that was key in John and Iris’s relationship. When they were young they did a of skinny dipping, so to me it was another extension of their relationship.”

But she admitted to having a moment of “Oh, no, here we go again,” when she saw herself naked in the movie.

Winslet’s weight has been a constant source of media interest. After Titanic her weight rose above 11 stone and she was dubbed “Titanic Kate,” in the tabloids. She described the coverage as “hurtful” but seemed impervious to pressure to do the thing the movie industry expects of leading ladies – to lose weight. Then, just as she started to become a role model for women resisting the pressure to diet, she lost weight.

Now she is back to her pre-Titanic weight but sighs when the issue is invariably raised at press conferences. “Awful boring weight questions again,” she tells the reporter who was bold enough to ask.

“Getting my figure back after pregnancy wasn’t easy but I got it back again. I didn’t panic and think I’d lost my figure for ever,” she said.

 Media interest in Winslet’s  weight and personal life remains unabated, becoming more intense after she started dating Mendes.

 “When I feel invaded I carry on as normal, particularly now that I have Mia,” she said. “The press have never forced me to be barricaded into my own home and I never will be. Because of what’s been going on I’m probably followed around more now when I take Mia for a simple walk than I have been for some time, but that doesn’t mean I won’t go on that walk.”

The arrival of  Winslet’s first daughter also curtailed her movie-making.

“In the first year of her life I didn’t want to be away a lot. I have ended up doing two films but only worked about 11 weeks. I feel relatively triumphant about that because she has come along when I’ve been doing these roles. Actresses are very lucky.”

Winslet’s post Titanic roles appear to demonstrate a desire to do different. She turned down blockbusters to film the modestly budgeted Hideous Kinky in Morocco and Holy Smoke in India.

“I don’t have a specific agenda as  such, she told me. ” I haven’t turned down the blockbusters because I don’t want to do the films. It is simply that after Titanic I have done the things I felt most passionate about and the most challenged by.”

Hideous Kinky was her only specific choice. “I wanted to do something that was British and small,” she said. “I was mindful of the fact I am a young British actress and it’s quite important to set an example.”

Many critics are saying Iris brings the best of British to the screen, bu it Kate Winslet, Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent or the writer of whose life this film is a poignant celebration of.

 Bayley saw his late wife in the depiction of Iris Murdoch in the film and it made him cry. He won’t be the only one.


About davidlmacaulaymedia

I am an award winning, experienced journalist who has worked on national and local newspapers for more than 20 years in the United Kingdom and the United States. I am a blogger, a photographer and a legal marketer. I run a freelance writing and legal marketing agency.
This entry was posted in Film and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s