In the last 10 years or so, we have been treated to incredibly moving and tender portrayals of dementia and its effects on the once bright and brilliant. Anthony Hopkins just won an Oscar for The Father, Julianne Moore got her statuette for Still Alice in 2015, and last year saw Relic and Supernova dominate several festivals. All in all, it’s a genre that undoubtedly resonates with large audiences, but it’s also difficult to make your mark in such a packed genre.
Tom Dolby’s The Artist’s Wife is similarly affecting but fails to say anything new in an exciting way. Lena Olin plays Claire, the wife to the enigmatic but elderly Richard Smythson (Bruce Dern). Once a keen artist herself, she has abandoned her own dreams in order to serve her more successful and prolific husband. As he begins to showcase symptoms in line with Alzheimer’s, however, Claire’s life is thrown into chaos.
The Artist’s Wife gives Olin the role of a lifetime. Her performance is equally raw, furious, and quietly devastating while never slipping into hysteria or overblown dramatics. She beautifully portrays Claire’s growing anxiety and desperation and her performance is layered and relaxed, the best thing the film has to offer.
Bruce Dern is essentially playing the role he is known best for playing. He’s grumpy, loud, and easy to hate; it’s not a particularly subtle performance nor does Dern make it easy to empathise with Richard, who seems hell bent on making everyone’s lives miserable. Dern and Olin share electric chemistry, though, and their scenes together feel charged and their ever-changing dynamic is fascinating.
The film seems to share the most DNA with The Wife, which earned Glenn Close an Oscar nomination for playing the wife of a celebrated author. While the plots to The Wife and The Artist’s Wife are wildly different, they both emphasise with the role of the wife, the support, the muse and how this often diminishes one’s identity as an artist themselves. When The Artist’s Wife explores Claire’s lost sense of identity and her attempts to reclaim it, the film is at its most potent. The film’s treatment of Claire’s sexuality is also interesting; it’s treated as its own complex part of her and portrayed with maturity and taste.
Unfortunately, the film suffers from a weak script. Written by Dolby, Nicole Brending and Abdi Nazemian and partly inspired by Dolby’s experiences with his own father, the script feels like a mashup of other, better films. It never crafts its own identity and never seems to have anything interesting to say. More so, the film never says anything with any style. The Artist’s Wife feels overly familiar and thus safe, heading towards a predictable ending which doesn’t hit as hard as it should, although the undercurrent of tragedy is handled beautifully.
While it never manages to really hit the emotional notes it needs to, The Artist’s Wife is powered by spectacular performances, especially from Olin. It’s a quiet, tender and, at times, achingly romantic look at a marriage ravaged by a terrible disease. Despite there being better films about the subject matter, The Artist’s Wife at least gives us the Lena Olin performance and attention so many of us have been craving for.
The Artist’s Wife is available on UK and Irish digital platforms on April 30.