The Artist’s Wife Review: A Half-Painted Picture

Claire (Lena Olin) lives a quiet domestic life in the Hamptons as the wife of celebrated artist Richard Smythson (Bruce Dern). Once a promising painter herself, Claire now lives in the shadow of her husband’s illustrious career. While preparing work for his final show, Richard’s moods become increasingly erratic, and he is diagnosed with dementia. As his memory and behavior deteriorate, she shields his condition from the art community while trying to reconnect him with his estranged daughter and grandson from a previous marriage. Challenged by the loss of her world as she knew it, Claire must now decide whether to stand with Richard on the sidelines or step into the spotlight herself.

It would seem as though The Artist’s Wife is a direct extension on what Tom Dolby has personally experienced with his parents, maybe even saying things he wanted to say to them while his mom and dad were going through the struggles of having a partner who no longer recognizes you or sometimes doesn’t want anything to do with you. This idea extends to the screenplay, which Tom Dolby had a hand in writing. There’s inherent anger or grief boiling underneath the surface of this film. It’s not always present, but it’s there, waiting for you. One of the ways this is portrayed is in a late film conversation between the wife and the daughter about what family means, and why she should try to connect with her father after all these years.

Everyone’s busy. When you ask someone how they’re doing, they say busy, as if that’s an answer to the question.”

Claire Smythson (played by Lena Olin), The Artist’s Wife

One of the most vital aspects of the film is how the approach to how a set looks. We get a lot of varied sets, with the showcase being the artist’s studio. At one point, it contrasts it’s inherited messiness and what that says about an artist’s mindset to how tidy the actual house is. This progresses over the course of the film and sets up a nice visual language for how Richard is feeling at any given moment.

Speaking of, the film is proficent at this kind of subtle visual cues. Along with the set design, the cinematography sets up a language that deteriorates over time as well. We start the film with this very stable camera technique at the beginning with only the smallest hints of a shaky foundation but by the end, I saw a handheld camera being used more frequently. Bravo to whoever made that choice.

The Artist’s Wife‘s editing has to be some of the best I’ve seen this year. There are these sequences where Claire goes to New York City to run errands that, paired with the excellent cinematography, set up the continuity of Claire walking out of the frame and into wherever she’s going. There’s also a montage late in the film with a nice visual flow to showcase a painting session. 

The whole film is underscored by this melodic and melancholic piano score that I can only describe as “nighttime piano.” Whenever I picture the score for the film, I see someone slouched over a piano just gently tapping a key or two to find a new rhythm, and then discover it to a crescendo.

However, with all of these positives come one big negative: the film is too long. Thirty-four minutes into the film, I became disinterested in everything that was going on with the film. Most of the time, I wanted to get back to what was going on with Richard instead of the family. I don’t know that Tom Dolby decided to focus on the wife instead of the artist, but it makes for an uninteresting story that has a world of potential if only it were interested in showcasing it. 

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Artist’s Wife is coming to iTunes, Amazon Video, Google Play Movies, Vudu and Vimeo on September 25th.

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