The Artist’s Wife will inevitably draw comparisons with the Glenn Close vehicle, The Wife (2017). It came out just two years after that award nominated hit and both films share thematic similarities and titles that could easily be confused. In this case, however, the comparisons are apt because the two films do attempt to cover a lot of the same ground.
The Wife dealt with the story of a tempestuous marriage between a revered novelist and his put upon wife. It dealt with the slow break down of a once happy relationship and the titular wife’s desire to break away from her husband and reveal an explosive secret about his literary works. The Artist’s Wife concerns a woman who is in a similar position. She is Swedish-American, Claire (Lena Olin) who has long been married to acclaimed artist Richard Smythson (Bruce Dern). He is irascible in old age and suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, which makes it more difficult for him to handle his various responsibilities. He is criticised for being unnecessarily harsh to the art students that he teaches at a local educational facility. All of these issues mean that Smythson has little time to focus on producing art. Claire worries that her husband will not have the strength to continue painting and finds herself rediscovering her artistic side. Pressure mounts on both of the Smythsons and their marriage begins to crumble under the weight of all these different concerns.
The similarities between the two plot descriptions are startlingly obvious, but The Artist’s Wife differs in a few important ways. The Wife was a tale of female martyrdom, in which a talented woman was brought down by a sexist society. The Artist’s Wife aims to paint a slightly more complex portrait of its heroine. She puts up with her husband’s cruelty and goes to great pains to satisfy his every whim. However, there are times when she goes too far and ends up enabling him when it comes to his abuse of his art students and his neglect of his other family members. There are many problems with the script, but you can appreciate the fact that the writers thought to consider what impact a difficult relationship could have on a person. Claire is both victim and enabler and it makes it harder to point fingers when it comes to the situations that these characters find themselves in. This gives the audience more room to breathe and consider how they would respond to being verbally harassed by their teacher or their father, instead of being told exactly how to feel.
Some of the strengths of the script can be noted, while still acknowledging the fact that this film lacks a sense of subtlety and originality in other areas. Jeff Grace’s score is overbearing and tries too hard to set a tone and telegraph plot points to the audience. There are several exquisite close-up shots of Olin, in which she tells us all we need to know through her well considered use of facial expressions. These are often ruined by the intrusive score, which overshadows the delicacy of Olin’s work and upsets the tonal balance of scenes. The film also drags at times and the long, often repetitive montages linger on incidental details that didn’t seem essential to telling this story. We get several shots of Claire running down the beach in her Yale sweatshirt and they don’t seem to be conveying anything of any insight. The montages come in between longer scenes that establish the mundanity of her day to day routine, so they end up feeling like filler. Perhaps Claire is trying to metaphorically outrun all of her problems, but that would be too cheesy to bear.
Also disappointing, is the fact that the scenes where characters actually paint are so poorly staged. We see two or three bold brushstrokes and then the finished painting suddenly appears on screen. The actors are directed to furrow their brows and wave their paint brushes around as though they are performing an interpretive dance. They look faintly ridiculous and always seem to be performing for the camera instead of being in their own little world. Tom Dolby’s camerawork ensures that we never feel a sense of intimacy with Claire, as she adds some definition to one of the squiggles in the middle of her painting. If you want to get some understanding of the mind of an artist and the creative process, The Artist’s Wife will instead leave you with a heap of silly, unconvincing clichés.
It is possible, however, to look beyond all of these flaws because Claire is played by the extraordinary Lena Olin, one of the greatest living actresses, and she remains compelling when the film around her loses steam. She retains a certain youthful glow that initially makes it hard to accept her as the wife of a disheveled, ornery curmudgeon. Olin is smartly able to turn your expectations against you, and weaponises her glamorous appearance to explain why people think that Claire is functioning normally. You only recognise the strain coming through when she overcompensates for her husband’s rudeness at parties. Olin will fondly gaze at other guests for just a little too long or make a wild physical gesture in an effort to draw attention to herself. This feels like lived-in, natural behaviour and we understand that this is a routine that Claire is used to going through. When Smythson flies off the handle, she can only look at him with a certain weary resignation in her eyes. Olin astonishes us with the unexpected choices that she makes. She’s laconic one moment and shaken the next, we can never quite pin her character down. This unpredictability turns Claire into a complex figure that the audience has to reckon with. If you’re going to see this film for any reason, see it for Olin.
The Artist’s Wife is one of those unfortunate cases where you’ll have to suffer through a so-so film in order to savour a brilliant, well considered performance.
THE ARTIST’S WIFE WILL BE AVAILABLE ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS AND IN UK AND IRISH CINEMAS ON 30TH APRIL, 2021