‘The Artist’s Wife’ is paint-by-numbers melodrama

Photo from the documentary, "The Artist's Wife"
Strand Releasing/Courtesy

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Grade: 2.0/5.0

Directed by Tom Dolby and written alongside Nicole Brending and Abdi Nazemian, “The Artist’s Wife” traces the relationship between Claire (Lena Olin) and her eccentric artist husband, Richard (Bruce Dern). Though Claire has long given up her own artistic pursuits to be his homemaker and publicity agent, Richard’s rapidly onsetting dementia puts her in a difficult emotional position. Hoping to repair their relationship before it is too late, Claire arranges for Richard to reunite with his estranged daughter, Angela (Juliet Rylance). But the visit only adds tension to the couple’s already strained marriage, and Claire begins to reevaluate her long-standing devotion to the man she once loved.

The film is at its best in the first act, thanks in large part to its deft pacing and style. With an eye for color and a tasteful use of montage, “The Artist’s Wife” is most confident when setting up its pulpy premise and introducing its primary cast. There’s a certain amount of charm as well to the couple’s early dynamic: From overblown squabbles over paintbrushes to the idiosyncrasies in their daily routine, the central marriage of the film initially feels authentic, if demonstrably unhealthy. 

However, the chief issue of “The Artist’s Wife” is that it never seems to know where to take the couple from this starting point. This proves to be the film’s critical point of failure, but it isn’t necessarily an indictment of Dern’s or Olin’s performances. On the contrary, “The Artist’s Wife” squanders the talent of its award-decorated principal actors with the uncompelling characters it offers them.

From misogynistic tirades against his art students to the constant and unwarranted disparagement of his wife and daughter, Richard quickly devolves into a ceaseless jerk for no discernible reason beyond simply playing out the “tortured artist” stereotype. Though the film’s main premise pins much of this on the character’s worsening dementia, there’s little indication that Richard was ever redeemable to begin with. As an Oscar-nominated portrayer of antagonistic old men, Dern is well within his expertise in “The Artist’s Wife.” But with very little nuance to be found in the screenplay, even Dern’s remarkable talent can’t save the character from being unflinchingly unlikeable and one dimensional.

Though far more sympathetic, Claire is at times equally frustrating. Like Richard, she’s at her best in the first act as she grapples with the implications of her husband’s dementia. There are also small glimpses of hope later in her dynamic with the estranged Angela, with whom she quickly forms a trusting friendship, and Danny (Avan Jogia), her potential extramarital love interest.

 Still, it becomes clear at a certain point that the melodrama of “The Artist’s Wife” isn’t going anywhere novel or surprising. From her inevitable and well-telegraphed affair to the generic music-set painting sequences that signal her rediscovery of art, Claire’s arc in “The Artist’s Wife” feels like it’s simply ticking boxes off a suppressed-housewife-in-soap-opera checklist. All things considered, Olin brings a palpable weight of emotion to the performance and commands attention in a handful of powerful scenes. But taken as a whole, her character has a noticeable lack of anything memorable.

All of these issues culminate in a final twist that is as dissatisfying as it is predictable. All of Claire’s soul searching and self-actualization proves to be irrelevant, and Richard is absolved of any of his intolerable traits. This forecasted nature seems to indicate that “The Artist’s Wife” had ostensibly been written with this ending in mind: Considering the film’s empathetic handling of the topic of dementia, it’s easy to see what the writers were attempting to do with this conclusion. But it’s more than a little frustrating to watch the film quickly undo all of its earlier emotional work in service to an ending that feels entirely unearned. With a star-studded cast, “The Artist’s Wife” feels like it should be painting with the right colors, but it simply fails to capture the depth of its all-too-familiar story.

Olive Grimes covers film. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @ogrimes5.