‘The Artist’s Wife’: Marriage Is Tested by Dementia in Tom Dolby’s Intimate Drama

Relationships are hard work. “The Artist’s Wife” adheres to that idea, but with a unique kind of maturity and sense of intimacy. When films deal with disease or life’s other trials, they can come under threat of escaping into melodrama. Director Tom Dolby focuses away from the microcosmic details of Alzheimer’s impacting one of its main characters, instead preferring to emphasize how a bond becomes most apparent when undergoing a major storm. “I had always been interested in exactly that topic of what it was like to be in a couple with two creative people where one person’s career sort of overtakes the others, and the person who is forced to give up their career has to support the one who is more famous,” Dolby told Entertainment Voice. 

Claire (Lena Olin) is married to a famous painter, Richard Smythson (Bruce Dern). They live comfortably in the Hamptons, as Richard teaches classes and Claire plays the role of muse to an aged master. She once had artistic aspirations, but they were quickly overshadowed by Richard’s own grand success. Then Richard is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and his behavior becomes erratic. It’s a grinding new test for Claire, who finds herself, along with Richard, walking through uncharted territory. As his memory begins to haze and painting becomes more difficult, Claire might find a need to revisit the talent for painting she put aside. Of course Richard’s condition will affect everyone in his orbit, including estranged daughter Angela (Juliet Rylance), who resents Richard’s habit of being constantly absent in her life.

The saga of the individual suddenly facing a health issue completely out of their control evokes a particular sort of empathy. It is a universal fear to be afflicted by something, whether health-related or not, that is beyond compromising with. “You know, everyone’s experience of dementia, whether you’re talking about the person afflicted with it or the family members is so different. There’s no one model for how it is in each situation. I think what we were portraying with Bruce Dern is the early to mid-stages, when the family begins to realize that something is going wrong, and the confusion that this person can be very cogent at times, saying things that are very brilliant and very funny, and be very present and then a few minutes later they’re really not,” said Dolby. 

But the key to “The Artist’s Wife” is all in its title. Dolby is not making a rehash of dramas like “Still Alice.” The Alzheimer’s diagnosis and ensuing dementia are central to the plot, but the real theme is a balance between devotion and independence. The screenplay by Dolby and Nicole Brending doesn’t linger in clinics or hospital rooms. There are not too many extended scenes with doctors educating us on how Alzheimer’s works. Dolby keeps the camera firmly situated in Claire and Richard’s home, capturing those moments where it dawns on Claire that the rules of the marriage are shifting. She has lived under Richard’s shadow for so long, yet now he’s the one becoming wholly dependent on her. Suddenly those quirks we associate with artists, like the aloofness and impulsiveness, become obnoxious and even dangerous because of Richard’s mood swings. For Claire it’s not a question of leaving Richard now that he is not the same man she married, but about continuing to love him while figuring out what she wants to do for herself as well. She can paint, and begins to put brush to canvas again. There is a quiet, liberating feeling to the moments where she gets away from Richard to express herself with a craft she always carried inside. 

Dolby’s view of these relationships has a special dramatic force because they avoid getting too corny. Angela resents her father, she has a small son, Gogo (Ravi Cabot-Conyers), and her own rages come out when Richard chastises her for being too soft. She’s also a lesbian and this adds other layers of awkward pressure, like when Claire meets her friend and helper, Danny (Avan Jogia), who is assumed to be some love interest. Within the tensions of Richard’s diagnosis there are also generational clashes going on, even if Claire and Richard come from a somewhat bohemian background. Their world is perfectly captured as confined, like an island, even after moments where Claire maneuvers around the art scene, assuring gallery directors that Richard is working on something new. Instead of overloading us with medical facts, Dolby just lets the camera stare at Richard as he constantly runs a brush of white paint across a campus, hoping inspiration will arrive amid his increasingly forgetful mind. “When you have a brilliant character like Richard, they’re often covering it up. I love the scene with the family meeting for Christmas in the living room and you sense a disconnect between what we’re seeing and what’s going on in his head, that he’s sort of partly there but also trying to keep his head above water, so to speak, trying not to reveal his confusion or distress,” said Dolby.

While this is only Dolby’s second movie as a director, after 2014’s “Last Weekend,” and he has produced some excellent films like “Call Me by Your Name” and the documentary “Regarding Susan Sontag,” his command of economy here is precise. The movie is set in just a few locations and the emotions are powerfully put on screen by two great veterans. Lena Olin has made movies from a young age with titans like Ingmar Bergman, while Bruce Dern needs no introduction. Together they create a couple that is so vivid their language never becomes expository. A look, a holding of the hand are enough to tell us how well they know each other, or how long they have been together. This makes it more heartbreaking whenever Richard has an episode, and Claire, tired and worn out, explodes. Like Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville in “Ordinary Love” earlier this year, Odin and Dern feel like real people settled into domestic living, whose lives are suddenly overturned by a rebellious body. “As a director, one has such an incredible advantage when working with veteran actors like these. They bring so much to the characters already. They bring such a wealth of experience. They too are people who have been in the arts for years. With this subject matter it’s very close to home, whether you’re talking about acting or painting,” said Dolby. “What I love about veteran actors is that they bring all that to their performances. You can see it in their faces. We had a wonderful shorthand on set, because you’re working so quickly when you’re directing and getting as much material as possible, sometimes working in very adverse conditions, so you spend a lot of time working with your actors beforehand before you shoot. It’s like having a best friend and you can just give them a smile or a raised eyebrow and they know exactly what you mean.”

What Dolby does with a strong sense of subtlety is slowly reveal that Claire’s independence is the real story here. History is littered with stories of famous men with wives pushed behind the curtain. Once Claire picks up her brush again it’s evident she loves Richard, but is capable of making her own work. The ending comes as a bit of a heart-tugging twist, but it says a lot about real bonds. The movie is sober about relationships, but not cynical. “The Artist’s Wife” is not about fame or even the artist’s life, it’s about how illness can strike anyone, and its effects impact both the afflicted and the loved ones nearby. 

The Artist’s Wife” releases Sept. 25 on VOD.