Richard Smythson (Bruce Dern) has been an artist all his adult life and married to Claire (Lena Olin) for half of that, feeling she brings out the best in him and his paintings. He has always been somewhat irascible, the doesn't suffer fools gladly type of man, but just recently this behaviour has been growing worse and is even affecting the classes he takes in college for students hoping to learn at the knee of this great talent. However, now he is verbally abusive towards them under the belief it will toughen them up for a career in the arts, and this is not evidence of his tough but fair teachings, more evidence he is suffering from a lack of judgement. When Claire is informed her husband is now in the early stages of dementia, she wonders what she can do now...
How about make plans for when he is not around anymore? That would appear to be the point of director Tom Dolby's film, which he dedicated to his parents, so you can imagine the piece came from the heart, but as the title indicated, the heart of the drama lay with the Claire character rather than an examination of how the dementia affected Richard. Indeed, according to this the disease merely exaggerated his bad temper and made him intermittently forgetful, which may have been accurate to the beginning of the condition but was offering a not really honest portrayal of what it does to the personality of its sufferers, indeed the final shot showed Richard having a fine old time, beaming away as he achieves a happy ending that may make some viewers sceptical.
Yet actually, Dolby was more captivated by Claire and the possibilities of the liberated and financially secure older lady, since she used to be an artist herself and now her spouse will not be picking up his paintbrush so much from now on, it is a chance for her to emerge from under his considerable shadow and become known as an artist in her own right. All very well, but an indication of how relentlessly middlebrow The Artist's Wife was would be summed up in those artworks: not a Jake and Dinos Chapman diorama, for instance, or a Tracey Emin rumpled bed, but simple abstracts on canvas that most audiences would have no idea whether they were any good or not, and simply have to take the Smythsons' genius as read. That the plot lacked the gumption to be adventurous in that regard would be fair enough had the dementia been the main concern.
However, as it unfolded it was apparent Claire's fulfilment as an artist was paramount, with Dern frequently sidelined so Olin could go off on her own, trying to make peace with Richard's daughter Angela (Juliet Rylance), enjoying a mind-expanding spot of adultery with Angela's babysitter Danny (Avan Jogia). It was probably unfortunate that this was receiving a wider release around the point that Florian Zeller's The Father was getting its Oscars, since you would be expecting that sort of thing from this, when it was actually more a Sunday colour supplement article brought to life, where Claire would invite you into her home, chat about a few revealing incidents, discuss her art and how she had gone from muse to inspired herself, and so forth. What this did not give you was a reason to be invested, and while with these two leading actors you were guaranteed committed performances, by the conclusion you did not feel as if there had been sufficient motive to spend time with these people's problems when they did not seem to be too much of a hardship compared with others in the real world going through the same ordeals. With constant sad piano music by Jeff Grace.
[The Artist's Wife starring Bruce Dern and Lena Olin - available from digital platforms April 30th 2021.]