By now, there have been enough movies and TV dramas focused on the fraying ties between individuals gradually diminished by Alzheimer’s disease and their supportive but increasingly stressed loved ones to constitute an entire subgenre. If “The Artist’s Wife” stands apart from the pack, it’s largely because this familiar but affecting drama spends less time on depicting the systematic lessening of an exceptional intellect — though, rest assured, that tragedy is not at all minimized — and focuses more on the psychic toll taken on a loyal life partner whose selflessness is running on empty.
Right from the start, director Tom Dolby, working in concert with co-writers Nicole Brending and Abdi Nazemian, makes it clear that Claire (Lena Olin), the younger but no longer young wife of aged celebrity artist Richard Smythson (Bruce Dern), long ago settled into subservience in the spacious confines of their well-appointed East Hamptons home.
“I create the art; she creates the rest of our lives,” Richard blithely tells a TV interviewer as his spouse cozies next to him on a couch. “Everything we do is up to Claire.” Claire doesn’t disagree. But the flicker of her forced smile indicates that she’s no longer entirely comfortable in the overwhelming shadow of her husband.
Claire’s uneasiness escalates as Richard, always a demanding teacher at a nearby university and a self-dramatizing egotist everywhere else, incrementally edges way past the point of simply being erratic and uninhibited as he pushes himself to create new artwork — as he angrily struggles to remember how to create — for an upcoming Manhattan exhibition. She initially refuses to accept the diagnosis of his dementia, and the movie teasingly hints that, maybe, she’s not just willfully blind to the obvious. She gave up her own artistic ambitions years earlier to accept the role of junior partner in their relationship. In essence, she relinquished her own life to be a significant part of his. If she loses him, does she have anything of her own identity left?
(Incidentally: Director Dolby has acknowledged “The Artist’s Wife” is at least partly inspired by his relationship with his father, famed sound engineer Ray Dolby, who endured Alzheimer’s before passing away in 2013.)
Olin subtly expresses an impressively diverse array of complex and often contradictory emotions as Claire is driven alternately by her love and empathy as a faithful spouse, and her recognition that, as time goes by, Richard’s worsening condition may give her a last best shot at personal autonomy. Her scenes opposite Dern crackle with intensity, whether their characters are interacting at the top of their lungs or enjoying rare moments of quiet, tender intimacy.
But Olin remains every bit as compelling while Claire reaches out to Angela (well played by Juliet Rylance), Richard’s estranged and resentful daughter by his first wife, and old art-world friends such as painter Ada Risi (a very revealing performance by Stefanie Powers).
For his part, Dern — giving easily his best performance since his Oscar-nominated turn in “Nebraska” — manages the difficult feat of stopping well short of going completely over the top in a role that requires carefully calibrated measures of excess to achieve maximum impact. As an art instructor, Richard is a hectoring bully whose behavior would require serious dialing down just to qualify as inappropriate. (At one point, he brutally destroys a student’s painting more or less as an object lesson.) At home, even during a yuletide get-together with Angela, her son (Ravi Cabot-Conyers) and Danny (Avan Jogia), the child’s improbably hunky babysitter (whose hunkiness does not go unnoticed by Claire), Richard’s vertiginous mood swings generate virtually nonstop, industrial-grade anxiety.
And yet, for all that, Dern sustains a firm grip on our sympathy because, every so often, Richard’s unfiltered outbursts and exhortations suggest that he’s at least sporadically aware of where he’s going and what he’s losing. “Paint what breaks your heart,” he tells his students. “What you can’t get back.”
It’s entirely possible that “The Artist’s Wife” would have hit the same pitch-perfect notes had it been set during a long hot summer. But the wintery ambiance enhanced by Ryan Earl Parker’s evocative cinematography feels altogether appropriate for a story about one life winding down, and another on the verge of a restorative spring.
In the interest of full disclosure: Some years ago, I was asked to host an onstage Q&A with a well-known character actor at a film festival. The day before the event, however, the actor’s wife warned me that he might not be up to the task because he was in the early stages of dementia. Sure enough, when we met for dinner that evening, I could see he was in no shape to field random questions — when I showed him on my iPhone a clip from one of his few star vehicles, he could barely recognize himself — so we made other plans. For a long time afterward, I really couldn’t understand why the wife agreed to even consider the film festival appearance in the first place. It took me a while to understand why just making the effort was important for both of them. That experience probably colored my response to “The Artist’s Wife.” Your mileage may vary.