Watching veteran actors get starring roles is almost always a pleasure. Especially when it’s ones who are often relegated to supporting roles these days, it’s quite pleasing to watch them receive a showcase. The Artist’s Wife is a clear example of this, allowing Bruce Dern and Lena Olin an almost blank canvas to paint on with their talents. The result is an acting clinic being put on by the pair of vets. The film itself has some highs and lows, but the two of them more than make up for the moments that fall short. Entering release this weekend after a long COVID-19 related delay, it’s well worth a watch.
The Artist’s Wife stakes its claim on giving Dern and Olin ample room to do their thing. Filmmaker Tom Dolby has crafted a movie around the pair, wanting it to be almost entirely about them. When he strays from that, the flick struggles. When he doesn’t, you can easily appreciate the ace acting on display. The main issue is that there are times, especially in the back end, when that’s not the case. It’s a puzzling choice, too, since if you have Bruce Dern and Lena Olin, why not put them together as much as possible? Luckily, it’s only preventing a good film from being great.
Richard Smythson (Dern) is a famous abstract artist, long supported by his wife Claire Smythson (Olin). While preparing his latest painting for a long awaited final show, Richard begins acting strangely. Claire isn’t sure what’s going on, but a trip to the doctor confirms that he’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. This plunges her into crisis mode, as she’s been the brains of the operation for decades. She wants to support her husband in his time of need, but he’s certainly not making it easy, lashing out at his University students, as well as her.
As Richard deteriorates slowly, Claire becomes determined to patch things up between him and his estranged daughter Angela (Juliet Rylance). Angela has long wanted nothing to do with Richard, Claire wants them to know each other, as well as Richard and his grandson Gogo (Ravi Cabot-Conyers) before his mind is lost to dementia.
At the same time, Claire, long in Richard’s shadow, begins painting, hoping to get her own creative juices flowing again. While the couple clearly love each other, it hasn’t been an easy relationship, with the struggle only deepening as Richard recedes on a cognitive level.
Bruce Dern and Lena Olin are fantastic here. Juliet Rylance is solid too in her somewhat stock supporting role, while Avan Jogia has a similar problem with his small part, though it’s really all about Dern and Olin. The former gets to go big, clearly relishing the character’s struggle with a devastating illness. Yours truly is not alone in believing that Bruce Dern is worth watching in absolutely anything, but this is still one of his best large roles in some time. The latter has more layers, coming into full bloom as things progress. Their interactions are complicated and lovely in equal measure, especially when Richard is fawning over Claire.
Co-writer and director Tom Dolby rightly focuses on his leads. As a director, his camera heaps attention on Dern and Olin, clearly enamored by their skill. Unfortunately, the same can’t consistently be said about his screenplay, which he penned with co-writers Nicole Brending and Abdi Nazemian. The script takes an unnecessary right turn in the third act, creating added conflict that’s not needed in the slightest. Whenever the story focuses on one or both of the leads, it’s on very solid ground. When others get involved too much, it spoils the main pleasure to be found here.
Narrative missteps aside, The Artist’s Wife is an acting showcase, putting Bruce Dern and Lena Olin front and center. If you appreciate veteran actors and actresses let loose, this flick will tickle your fancy. Dolby and his co-writers are the weak link, but Dolby at least knows from the director’s chair to get out of the way of his leads. Dern in particular is going all-out, while Olin gets the best written of the roles. Together, they make this a movie worth seeking out.