It would have been good for The Artist’s Wife if The Wife hadn’t come along first.
Like a first spouse whose presence often hovers over a second marriage, the Glenn Close-Jonathan Pryce drama gives a “been there, done that” feeling to Tom Dolby’s sophomore feature about the relationship between a famed artist experiencing the beginning stages of dementia and his supportive wife who subjugated her own artistic career to his. Despite its value in providing superb starring turns by Lena Olin and Bruce Dern, the film never manages to overcome its air of familiarity.
Inspired by events in the lives of Dolby’s parents (his father is pioneering sound engineer Ray Dolby), the film centers on the marriage between aged abstract artist Richard Smythson (Dern) and his younger wife, Claire (Olin), who live in a gorgeous modernistic Hamptons home that also serves as Richard’s studio. (The locale inevitably spurs comparisons to Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner.) Just as Richard is preparing for a major show, he begins displaying disturbing symptoms, including the impulsive purchase of a $94,000 clock and sudden bursts of anger, that prompt Claire to seek a medical diagnosis. The results are not favorable.
This prompts a reawakening for Claire, who has been content to serve as her husband’s supportive muse. In a media interview shown early in the film, Richard tells his questioner, “I create the art,” before pointing to his wife and declaring, “She creates the rest of our life.”
Unfortunately, the plot development leads the screenplay — co-written by Dolby with Nicole Brending and Abdi Nazemian (for a clearly personal film, this seems like too many cooks in the kitchen) — down overly predictable paths.
Seeking support, Claire turns to Angela (Juliet Rylance, making the most of a thankless role), Richard’s grown daughter from a previous marriage, with whom he’s … you guessed it … estranged. Upon barging her way into hostile Angela’s life, Claire is surprised to learn that she has an adorable 6-year-old son, Gogo (Ravi Cabot-Conyers). She’s even more surprised to discover that Claire is gay, and that Danny (Avan Jogia), the hunky young man attentively looking after Gogo, is not Claire’s partner but her babysitter.
As if aware that the tragedy of encroaching dementia has already been sensitively and powerfully depicted in such films as Away From Her and Still Alice, among others, the filmmaker (who co-directed 2014’s Last Weekend) instead concentrates on Claire’s reclaiming of her own identity, both as an artist and a woman. This gives Olin the opportunity to deliver a superbly nuanced performance in which she seems literally to glow brighter the longer she’s onscreen. Too rarely afforded leading roles in recent years, she seizes this one with fervor, clearly relishing the film’s adult treatment of mature sexuality.
Indeed, The Artist’s Wife displays rare sophistication for a non-European film, allowing its no-longer-young stars to demonstrate that physical passion doesn’t necessarily diminish with age. The point is also amusingly driven home in a scene concerning an artist friend of Claire’s, played by a vibrant Stefanie Powers, in which we see a lot more than usual of the veteran Hart to Hart star.
The 84-year-old Dern displays his usual charisma, but he doesn’t have nearly as much to work with, and he’s done his irascible thing to death. The sketchy screenplay provides little backstory for his character or the couple’s relationship, so we don’t know whether such behavior as Richard verbally abusing his art students, and savagely destroying one of their works, is because of his medical condition or that he’s simply always been a jerk.
This sort of narrative reticence proves frustrating at other times as well. We never learn the reason for Richard’s estrangement from his daughter, or why he’s suddenly so eager to embrace her and his grandson. Similarly, a romantic element that develops between Claire and the much younger Danny is briefly introduced but then goes nowhere.
Despite its narrative opacity, The Artist’s Wife nevertheless has its affecting moments, mainly thanks to its superb leading players. The film certainly looks gorgeous, delivering beautifully photographed scenes of its wintry Hamptons settings that should drive up real estate prices in the area even further, if that’s even possible.
Production companies: Water’s End Productions, Greyshack Films
Distributor: Strand Releasing (virtual theaters and digital platforms)
Cast: Lena Olin, Bruce Dern, Juliet Rylance, Avan Jogia, Stephanie Powers, Catherine Curtin, Tonya Pinkins, Caryn West, Ravi Cabot-Conyers
Director: Tom Dolby
Screenwriters: Tom Dolby, Nicole Brending, Abdi Nazemian
Producers: Mike S. Ryan, Susanne Filkins, Tom Dolby, Abdi Nazemian
Executive producer: Payton Dunham
Director of photography: Ryan Earl Parker
Production designer: John El Manahi
Costume designer: Jami Villers
Music: Jeff Grace
Editor: Gena Bleir
Casting: Tineka Becker
Rated R, 95 minutes