Films often do a remarkable job of showcasing what disease does to a person both mentally and physically.
In 2014, Eddie Redmayne transformed himself to play Stephen Hawking struggling with early-onset ALS in an Oscar-winning role in The Theory of Everything and Julianne Moore received an Academy Award for playing a doctor diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in Still Alice.
What doesn’t usually take center stage in these sorts of films, however, is how the discovery of disease affects family members who play caretaker.
Director Tom Dolby’s latest feature, The Artist’s Wife, puts that at the forefront in a somber, yet intriguing look at a woman struggling with her own identity and self-worth while handling her successful husband’s deteroriation at the hands of dementia.
Claire must navigate helping Richard prepare for his next showcase at a major New York art gallery while trying to reconnect him with his estranged daughter before his memory of her fades.
Lena Olin carries the film with an erratic yet considered stoicism as the weight of her obligations sink her into emotional turmoil. Her Claire is passionate about her husband and outwardly plays the doting spouse only to find herself taking refuge away from Richard in the city or in conversation with anyone other than her husband.
It’s a similar, yet less showy performance than Glenn Close gave in her Academy Award-nominated turn in 2017’s The Wife, a film Dolby’s feature evokes but doesn’t attempt to copy.
As is probably expected of the role, it’s hard not to pay full attention to Bruce Dern’s Richard every time he appears on screen. Richard is by far the most demonstrative character, quickly losing all worries of social decorum or shame.
Much of The Artist’s Wife is tampered down with subtly and nuance and Dern never feels constrained in a role that acts as a release valve for all the tension Doyle builds into his screenplay. It’s a performance that isn’t bombastic beyond what appears on the page, but Dern pushes the envelope when required in a turn that might be his best since his 2013 Oscar nominated effort in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.
Juliet Rylance – stepdaughter of Oscar-winner Mark Rylance – plays the emotionally distant, yet warm-hearted Angela with a proper sense of caution.
A film about painters has a sense of responsibility to be visually cinematic and Dolby’s feature does an effective job of steering the viewers through his narrative with a largely picturesque landscape captured effectively in wide shots that evoke some of Richard and Claire’s work without being specific.
Ryan Earl Parker’s camerawork is unobtrusive, yet less memorable in scenes with heavy dialogue as the focus shifts to the narrative drama at hand and less of the subtlety of the film’s overall themes of isolation and an artist’s drive to create.
The biggest letdown of The Artist’s Wife is an over-used, excessively melodramatic score from composer Jeff Grace that just screams “feel sad here” as an audible means to express melancholy. Luckily, Dolby pulls back on the music cues as the narrative unfolds and the film becomes less cliché, but to a large extent, the damage has already been done to reduce the overall quality of the cinematic experience.
Though it boasts Oscar nominees in both Olin (Enemies, A Love Story) and Dern (Coming Home, Nebraska), there doesn’t seem to be any awards season potential for The Artist’s Wife beyond a single nod at the Film Independent Spirit Awards in an acting or screenwriting category.
A well-intentioned film that has some genuine, quality moments, The Artist’s Wife languishes in melodrama a bit too much to justify seeking it out in its limited theatrical run or opening weekend rental on video-on-demand. When it eventually finds its way to a streaming service, that may finally be the time for casual cinephiles to check out Olin and Dern’s solid performances.