Novelist Iris Murdoch would have been famous enough just for her literary output, but her lingering decline and death from Alzheimer’s disease added a poignancy to her twilight years as her intellect slowly ebbed away. Her husband, long in her vivacious shadow, penned a memoir of caring for Murdoch at the end of her life and his story was brought to the big screen in 2001 by director Richard Eyre. With an all-star cast including both Kate Winslet and Judi Dench as Iris herself and both Hugh Bonneville and Jim Broadbent as her husband, Iris received a basket of acting nominations and ultimately earned Broadbent a surprise Oscar.
Director Eyre primarily worked in theater and TV before Iris, but the material’s prestige nevertheless gave him the pull to assemble a top-notch crew for his production. For music, he turned to James Horner who was in the midst of a career renaissance brought on by his massive popular and critical success with Titanic. Despite having two other major awards-caliber films on his plate for 2001, A Beautiful Mind and Enemy at the Gates, Horner committed to Iris and was able to use his clout to secure a choice soloist for the project as well: violinist Joshua Bell. Bell, internationally renowned in both the concert hall and as a player for film scores (notably John Corigliano’s The Red Violin), brought an unmistakable touch of class to the proceeings along with his Stradivarius.
The score’s reception was, at the time, rather chilly. Much like Horner’s work with Bradford Marsalis on Sneakers a decade earlier, critics complained that the relatively simple melodies given Bell were a waste of his talent, parts that could have been played equally well by a studio musician without a two million dollar instrument. Horner’s fans compared it unfavorably to his earlier works, particularly the cult favorite The Spitfire Grill, and it was ultimately overshadowed by A Beautiful Mind in the public consciousness and at awards time.
And yet, for all that, Horner and Bell’s efforts really work. Bell may not be challenged by Horner’s material, but the unique timbre of the violinist’s Stradivarius and his unmistakable technique lend the omnipresent string parts of the album a unique color. Furthermore, Horner rearranged his orchestra and the recording to put Bell front and center as a soloist, leading to a bright and summery sound suffused with subtle longing and tragedy. Much like he would with his later Pas de Deux, the emphasis for Horner was not to give his soloist a showy workout but to take advantage of Bell’s strength to construct a moving piece of music.
Throughout his career, Horner was often dinged for his use, or overuse, of a four-note “danger motif” that served as an instant musical signature. In Iris, though, there is very little danger; the motif is present, but twisted though bright orchestration and Bell’s performance into a ravishing love theme, the fundamental building block of the piece. From its debut in the first track to the last lingering strains of the last, Horner’s love theme for Iris and John, surrounded by a rich bed of fully orchestral music, is a subtle stunner. Also of note is the concluding track, which intercuts Kate Winslet’s voice singing the traditional song “A Lark in the Clear Air” with Horner’s full orchestra and Bell’s Stradivarius performing a sweeping, wistful set of variations on the love theme. It’s perhaps the most counterintuitively creative take on his own favorite musical building block that Horner ever devised.
As befits a score featuring one of the most recognizable instrumentalists in the concert hall, Sony Classical put out an album for Iris in 2001 that featured Bell’s name as prominently as Horner’s (and Branford Marsalis’s for Sneakers). But its more subtle sound wound up attracting none of the awards attention of A Beautiful Mind, with Bell’s solos nowhere near as crowdpleasing as Charlotte Church’s vocals and no one cue powerful enough to compete with “A Kaleidoscope of Mathematics.” Iris therefore remains one of Horner’s hidden gems to this day, widely available at an affordable price and due for reappraisal.