Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Medicine in Film: Iris

Iris 2001 film poster

Ladies and gentlemen, I bring joyous news! My exams are finally over and with two more weeks until the results come out (ack!) I've at long last had the opportunity to sit back and relax for a few days. That said, there is no rest for the wicked so I've been thrust back into university work almost straight away in the form of a month of individually allocated mini-projects. These 'Student Selected Components' (SSCs) can range from surgical placements to research opportunities to a study of the arts.

I'll give you one guess which of those I got my greasy fingers all over.

greasy bacon fingers
One of the first search results for "greasy fingers". You never cease to amaze, Google.
My SSC is all about the representation of health and the healthcare system in art and the oddly fascinating interplay found between these two supposedly unrelated systems. To boil it down to it's most basic essence: wankwankwankwankwankwank and lots of talk about feelings. So, obviously, I'm absolutely loving it. And just for the sake of those of you who have had the misfortune of following this blog for an extended period of time, no, that wasn't sarcasm; for once.

Abed Community sarcasm gif
"I'm Ben, I'm neeeeever sarcastic."
The component looks at all forms of art, but obviously the stuff I'm interested in talking about here are the films (and maybe a couple of video games if we're lucky), of which we have one allocated to watch and discuss each week. To aid my reflection process and to justify the existence of this waste of good internet real estate to my parents I'll be reviewing each of these movies over the coming month, focussing particularly on the aspects that adhere to the representation of health in art and such. Our first film is Iris, a biopic about the British author Iris Murdoch, who had the unlucky honour of experiencing the living hell that is dementia first hand. Hold on to your hats, shit's gonna get cheery.

We'll start things off with a short synopsis: a well known writer and intellectual (Judi Dench) is diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, the film following her descent into dementia and the way in which it impacts on herself and her husband (Jim Broadbent), the story interspersed with moments from her past (young Iris played by Kate Winslet). On a whole it's a cheap, albeit true, tale aimed at the Oscar bait market, not much else to say there.

Iris 2001 film Judi Dench
I forget the rest. *doom tish* Dementia joke!
So it's not all that original, big whoopie. What's important is that it was fun to watch, right?


Ok, it was pretty boring all round. Sure, the scripting was, on most occasions, solid and there were a couple of sweet moments, but they either peaked on the Sad-o-meter at a slightly extended "mnawhhh" or started to list into forced sadness territory, screaming "Feel, goddamn you, feel!" into your ear with an army of tinkly violins and smearing enough Vaseline on the camera lens to keep everyone on the set of Nymphomaniac lubed up until next Easter. That's a thing actually; for a film made in 2001, it sure looks and feels a lot older. The score is undeniably nineties feeling and the aforementioned fuzziness of everything makes it look like it was printed on recycled film left over from The Bridge Over the River Kwai. That, plus the amazing feat of making post-Titanic Kate Winslet look like a heavily air-brushed 14 year old, results in the whole film feeling much older than its years.

Iris 2001 film husband flashback
We can let it off seeing as most of the budget went into digitally removing Jim Broadbent's wrinkles.
The film cuts between past and present to keep things interesting but still feels unevenly paced, particularly near the end of the film when Iris begins to slide downhill rather suddenly. The sporadic nature of the time jumps, particularly nearing the end, did strike me as a nice parallel to Iris' own deteriorating condition (time itself begins to slip away and become more fluid) but it mainly served to highlight the barren mid-section of film that trudges on for too long all the more.

Iris 2001 film Kate Winslet naked
Save for a couple of much needed instances of the familiar Winslet-boob.
The only saving grace of Iris is that the script is strong enough to be held up by the small band of heavyweight actors that make up the central cast. Kate Winslet wonderfully portrays a young, idealistic woman with too much to say and all of the time in the world to say it while Judi Dench manages an equally as spectacular performance of the same woman warped by a crippling illness years later. That's not to detract from the rest of the cast, though, who are just as convincing in their own parts; it's just a shame that this much talent seems to spend so long waiting about scuffing their feet rather than having much time to shine. Great potential is marred by a shallow story.

Iris 2001 film Kate Winslet staircase
And dangerously slippery staircases.
Now let's have a look at the movie from a medical perspective. What does it have to say about that? Well, it's not a lot of good things, I'm afraid. To start, doctors don't exactly seem to get the best wrap; with only two clinicians making prominent appearances, it's important that each of them to make a good impression. Ah shit, the GP is played by the stupid guy from My Family.

Iris 2001 film Kris Marshall doctor
"Guhhhh, gee, let's just send her to someone else and hope for the best."
The other is shot down by Iris' husband for hiding behind the collective term "we" when admitting he can't answer a question about her illness. All in all, the doctors are treated pretty much as bumbling fools or just plain rubbish. Dang.

Iris 2001 film doctor radiologist
Verbal beatdowns from British actors are the number one cause of depression in radiologists.
Ok, so what about illness itself? Surely a heart-rending portrayal of someone suffering from dementia has got to have a good spin on what it means to deal with disease. Again, nope. There is a distinct lack of depiction of the start of the illness which, to a medic and likely to those who have experienced a similar situation, is kind of the interesting bit. Which sounds more captivating: a short film about the tense build up to a painter-decorator breaking his leg by falling off a ladder or a short film about the same painter-decorator chilling at home for a few weeks while his leg heals? By taking away most of the moments immediately after the diagnosis, where the couple's life would have been consumed by apprehension and fear of the illness and of their own future, the film distils Iris' illness down to nothing more than watching someone who was once great become a shadow of what they once were at an unnaturally rapid rate. It feels pretty darn voyeuristic.

Iris 2001 film beach scene
Ooooh, yeah. Bend over. Touch them knees.
Other aspects of medicine, particularly the parts of it available to those suffering from Alzheimer's and such, are almost entirely glossed over; as far as this movie is concerned, memory aids, therapy, clinics and a myriad other healthcare systems to help dementia patients just aren't a thing. Home help and the basic protocol for contacting social services apparently don't exist in this universe, either. There are occasions where both healthcare professionals and police officers are exposed to Iris' unhealthy home life (the two of them are now living in abject squalor), give the filthy bath and piles of rubbish a disgusted look and leave. That's! Bad police lady person!

Iris 2001 film mess police officer
"Dear god, this is horri- oh, wait, there's a Roomba under that dead badger. Nothing out of order here."
All in all the representation of medicine is predominantly negative and the actual portrayal of Iris' illness is well-meaning but somewhat inaccurate (due to a poor depiction of the insidious onset of dementia), lacking in focus on the patient and going more for how horrible it must be to have this disease. The film itself is watchable, but there are plenty other movies that have explored the same themes and ideas in a much better way. The only real reason to watch it is to marvel once again at the acting prowess of a group of beloved A-listers that you wouldn't usually get to see in such a small movie.


Overall Ben Equivalence Rating

Visiting a Geriatric Ward While Suffering from Cataracts -
Lots of slow, deliberate conversation between confused, fuzzy old people.

No comments:

Post a Comment