Back in 2019, it looked highly likely that, at her seventh attempt, Glenn Close would at last get her hands on that Best Actress Oscar. As we all know, it wasn’t to be – a certain Olivia Colman got in the way – but Close’s film, The Wife, still resonated with its story of a woman who lives in her husband’s shadow, allowing him to take the credit for her work – and reap the considerable rewards. And, in addition to a title that nods in the film’s direction, the narrative of Tom Dolby’s The Artist’s Wife contains more than a few echoes.
This titular wife, Claire (Lena Olin), is married to world-famous artist Richard (Bruce Dern) who, as far as the outside world is concerned, is preparing for his latest and greatest exhibition. But privately it’s clear the man is not himself and the couple are plunged into a crisis when he’s diagnosed with dementia. Despite struggling to cope with his increasingly unpredictable behaviour, Claire is determined to repair his relationship with estranged daughter Angela (Juliet Rylance), and help him build one with his young grandson. She’s also faced with the prospect of finding a way to make sure that exhibition still happens, while keeping his illness secret, even though it’s prevented him from completing enough paintings.
Instead of focussing on Richard and the difficulties that go with his condition, the emphasis is placed on Claire, and how a seemingly desperate set of circumstances allow her to emerge from the sidelines of her husband’s stellar career. She’s never complained about her status – it was her choice to support him and put her own ambitions on hold – but the longing to explore her own talent has always lingered just below the surface. So, while the film shifts between her private renaissance and his slow decline, it’s essentially her story. And, although seeing events from her perspective offers potential for a different approach to the subject, it’s never fully explored. Neither, sadly, is Richard’s condition: he’s unpredictable, sharp tongued yet also with moments of lucidity, but we don’t see much else, so that the cinematic picture painted for us is washed in a rosiness that doesn’t always convince.
It’s apparent that Richard has always been demanding and difficult – cruel, even – so it’s hard to sympathise with him, even in Dern’s experienced hands. A past master at playing cranky old men, he brings weight to the role but it doesn’t wholly fill that emotional gap. It’s easier to empathise with Olin’s Claire but, again, it’s undermined by that soft focus view and an ending that uncomfortably belies what the future holds for the family. While the two classy leads do their considerable best to tug on our heart strings, they’re constantly undermined by the tone of the storytelling.
Given the subject matter, we almost take it as read that we’ll be going through the emotional wringer, so the disappointment is tangible when that lump in the throat simply doesn’t show up and our eyes don’t prickle. The film has a cool, almost Scandi elegance – the piano soundtrack, the clean lines of the beautiful house – which gives it visual appeal and the cast work hard to hold on to our attention. But even they’re not reason enough.
Drama | Cert: 15 | Digital | Vertigo Releasing | 30 April 2021 | Dir. Tom Dolby | Lena Olin, Bruce Dern, Juliet Rylance.