A film about art, ageing and Alzheimer’s, The Artist’s Wife – as the title suggests – is a movie carried by its female star, Lena Olin. The Swedish-born actress has enjoyed plenty of success over the years, from working for Ingmar Bergman to starring alongside Daniel Day-Lewis in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. She’s also married to famous director Lasse Hallström, though she’s certainly not in the shadow of her successful spouse like her character Claire.
As the set-up swiftly explains, Claire is wed to Richard Smythson (Bruce Dern), a famous abstract expressionist painter. She long since gave up her ambitions to paint, playing the dutiful, supportive wife to her egocentric husband. But now things have changed: Richard has dementia. She remains loyal, but his illness somehow thaws something inside her. Soon, she is bonding with Richard’s estranged daughter Angela (an excellent Juliet Rylance, stepdaughter of Sir Mark Rylance) and even has a dalliance with Angela’s son’s babysitter (Avan Jogia).
Dern excels as the curmudgeonly artist, who has long since given up caring what people say nor has any time for political correctness. Anachronistic in the age of millennials, he has no compunction about verbally abusing the pupils he teaches art to, making one young female practically storm out with his sexist comments. He recalls Lance Henriksen’s vile father in Viggo Mortensen’s recent film, Falling, though he’s not quite so misanthropic. It’s the best role Dern has enjoyed since Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.
The film is written and directed by Tom Dolby who knows a thing or two about famous families; his father was pioneering sound engineer Ray Dolby, who was sadly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s late on in his life. Admittedly, it’s this aspect that may sit uneasily with some. Arriving in the week that Sir Anthony Hopkins claimed his second Oscar for The Father for his devastating portrayal of a man with dementia, this feels lightweight by comparison, especially using the illness as a backdrop to Claire’s re-awakening. But as a vehicle for Olin, there’s little to carp about; it’s great to see her – at 66 – take such a meaty role. More of this would be very welcome indeed.
The Artist’s Wife is available on demand from April 30. For more details, click here.