Holiday Movie Preview/IRIS

By contrast, Iris looks to be the most conventional of the four films: a straightforward adaptation of two books by John Bayley about his relationship with the renowned British author of such prickly, intelligent novels as A Severed Head and The Green Knight. And yet it’s the story of a marriage, captured both in youth (when Murdoch and Bayley are played by Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville) and at the end, when Murdoch is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease (and the couple is played by Dame Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent). But who can claim to know the secret language of any long-term couple?

Not director Richard Eyre, who often spoke with Bayley, got his blessing on the screenplay, but chose not to work closely with the author. “None of us can play God with authority,” says Eyre, a veteran of British stage and screen. “My obligation is not to traduce the experience of the people on whom it’s based, not to trivia1ize it, and not to misrepresent it. But we don’t know what truthfully goes on between anyone in a relationship that lasts 30, 40 years.”

… If it’s an inaderently absurd task for screenwriters and directors to boil a life down to a paste jewel of simulated reality, how much harder is the actor’s task? A fictional character is open to endless interpretation, but a real-life human is Others approach research more casually. For Judi Dench, who has Queens Elizabeth and Victoria on her resume, books and questions work fine. “What you’ve got to do, I think, is read up as much as you can, to understand what motivated her,” she says of capturing Iris Murdoch. “I’ve seen people with Alzheimer’s. I never stopped talking to people about her. And it all goes into a sort of an inner computer.”  And then? For Dench, the actual process came down to communing with an old photo of Murdoch: “I found that, with all the things I’d stored up in this personal computer, just glancing at that picture was enough to start a chain of some kind of life of her inside me.”

… When does the challenge end? Given the karmic alchemy needed to wear another person’s psyche, do any of these actors have a problem putting their own shoes back on? Many insist they don’t; they’re professionals, after all. “Oh, there’s no confusion at all,” says Dench. “It is, when it comes to it, a job