mon 20/09/2021

The Artist's Wife review - uninspired portrait of dementia in the Hamptons | reviews, news & interviews

The Artist's Wife review - uninspired portrait of dementia in the Hamptons

The Artist's Wife review - uninspired portrait of dementia in the Hamptons

An artist's wife rediscovers her own creativity: Lena Olin and Bruce Dern star

Who's the artist? Bruce Dern and Lena Olin as Richard and Claire

“The only child I’ve ever had is you,” the artist’s wife (Lena Olin), spits at the artist, her considerably older husband (Bruce Dern), who retorts, “That was your goddamn choice so don’t blame it on me.”

Although the setting – a wintery East Hampton – is gorgeous, this portrait of Richard Smythson, a celebrated abstract artist just diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and his equally talented wife Claire, who gave up her own painting career in favour of his, never veers far from a well worn path.

It doesn’t bear comparison with Nebraska, where Bruce Dern played another senile old chap so magnificently. Still, it raises questions about what’s normal behaviour and what isn’t, especially for a genius, and how to tell when a cantankerous old bastard turns into a recognisably demented one. And how, when that genius husband is lost to dementia, his wife may find herself again.

But none of these issues is addressed very compellingly by director and co-writer Tom Dolby, whose own father, Ray Dolby, the inventor of Dolby sound, had Alzheimer’s. You never get much sense of what the relationship was like before Richard became ill so it’s hard to mourn its loss, unlike in other films about dementia, such as Away from Her, Still Alice or Viggo Mortensen’s recent Falling, which is, like The Artist’s Wife, rooted in personal experience. 

Claire and Richard live in splendour – privilege oozes throughout the film - in a black slab of a modernist house with huge windows. Their marble-counter-topped kitchen is lustrous, their fridge, stacked with perfect produce in rows of plastic containers, is of a pristine quality rarely seen in real life. Even his studio, where he’s trying in vain to produce works for a much anticipated show (his agent, played by Tonya Pinkins, keeps asking awkward questions about progress), looks remarkably spick and span, which contributes to the shallow feel that pervades.AwRichard is a bully and extremely rude to his young students, smashing a poor sucker’s canvas and asking him to repeat, “My painting is a piece of shit and doesn’t deserve to exist,” but this may be par for the course for all we know. Claire and Richard seem close, even jolly, though chemistry is lacking – or is that because he’s forgotten his Viagra?

Claire spends a lot of time staring wistfully out at the snow and sipping cup after cup of coffee from a fancy machine (though a preview of an old friend’s show at the New Museum provides a distraction, with Stephanie Powers of Hart to Hart in a surprise, Italian-accented cameo). Richard buys a $94,000 clock ("I hope we can return it," mutters Claire, rather mildly under the circumstances) and pours orange juice over his Grape-Nuts.

When she gets the diagnosis from a sympathetic doctor who seems more like a friend (we don’t see Richard’s reaction) she’s in denial, and we feel for her. Lena Olin’s face is always expressive and volatile. “Does everyone have to be normal all the time?” she asks tearfully. When getting his new prescription filled she’s oddly flummoxed by the chip-and-pin card machine, then gets belligerent with an employee at the supermarket after he catches her eating an energy bar before she pays for it. Who’s acting forgetful now?

Don’t do this alone, the doctor tells her. Get the family on board. What family? wonders Claire, as she runs despairingly along a beautiful empty beach. Ah yes – Richard’s bitterly estranged daughter Angela (Juliet Rylance; McMafia, Perry Mason), recently divorced from her wife. Stressed-out Angela lives with their son Gogo (Ravi Cabot-Conyers) in a luxury New York apartment building, complete with doorman and handsome manny/musician named Danny (Avan Jogia).awifeClaire makes several attempts to establish a connection, including turning up drunk and insisting on staying the night after missing the last Jitney back to the Hamptons (you wonder about the wisdom of leaving a man with Alzheimer’s alone overnight) but Angela is very reluctant, though it’s never entirely clear why. Danny, on the other hand, is rather keen, especially as he has a CD he’d like Claire to listen to. This she does, in her charming, rough-hewn new studio (pictured above), which she finds with extraordinary speed. Immediately, she’s inspired, liberated and propelled to seize the day now that Richard is sick, making large blocky abstracts as if she’d never put her brush down 20 years ago.

What she does with these paintings forms the film’s rather lacklustre denouement. “It’s very hard to look inside and paint what’s all gone,” complains Richard, as he stares at a blank canvas. Dolby, who is also a novelist and producer, has said that he sees his film as a tribute to caregivers as well as to female artists who have supported their famous husbands – Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Dora Maar - but this ambition may be a bit of a stretch. Claire, it seems, has just started to look inside again, and likes what she sees, but it’s hard to muster up much excitement about her reclaiming her future as an artist.

How to tell when a cantankerous old bastard turns into a recognisably demented one

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters