Greer Why Iris Is an Insult to Alzheimer's Victims; Bonnie Greer

Article excerpt


ONE OF THE ENDURING IMAGES of Iris, the film that purports to tell the story of the death of the great British novelist Dame Iris Murdoch from Alzheimer's disease, is the interior of the house she shared with her husband, Oxford don John Bayley. Their home resembles a rubbish tip with discarded newspapers everywhere and piles of unwashed dishes. Even a hardened WPC, running her finger across the oven, grimaces in disgust. The implication is that this is the way an Alzheimer's victim lives, in utter filth and disorder. The truth is somewhat different. Dame Iris and Professor Bayley lived in what was once described as 'heroic squalor' long before the cruel disease set in. To imply that the mess was a result of her illness is,poppycock.

This is one of the many misleading images of Alzheimer's in this absurdly sentimental and ultimately dishonest film. Iris sanitises a disease that cannot be sanitised.

The film shows the gradual decline of Dame Iris, played by Judi Dench.

First, she forgets words, then she can no longer write and, finally, she wanders about lost and confused. Without exception, these scenes are softly lit and soft-focus. The illness is kept at arm's length.

Yet Alzheimer's is a disease that those in the know fear more than Aids or cancer. I have seen it at firsthand and it's horrifying. The mother of one of my close friends recently died from Alzheimer's. Before the disease struck, she was a vibrant, handsome, no-nonsense woman. She would organise everyone in sight and took no prisoners. I respected her.

Six months after her mother's disease was diagnosed, I visited my friend at the restaurant she owned. While waiting for her, I instinctively moved away from what I thought was a bag lady sitting by herself at a table in the corner. The lady I was trying to avoid turned out to be my friend's mother.

This once strong woman had been reduced to an emaciated shadow.

Alzheimer's alters not only the mind, but the body, and the physical changes can be astounding. Predictably in Iris, Dench's weight does not change, nor does her face alter. Her physical deterioration is evident only in her hair, which becomes slightly lank. Dench's eyes go from childlike to blank and back again in the course of the film. The eyes of the mother of my friend rolled, shut, stared, went dead, all in the space of a few minutes.

The horror of watching this cruel disease inflict changes from day to day and from moment to moment is absent in Richard Eyre's film. Instead, we are presented with a doddering, incontinent, but somehow cuddly woman.

I once imagined that Alzheimer's was simply a case of memory loss, like dementia. But I know now what Iris does not show: the medication, the in and out of hospitals, the daily changes - one day eating and talking coherently, the next not touching a morsel and babbling like a child. And, above all, the endless waiting for the inevitable. …