The Artist’s Wife: As the mind slowly recedes

A Family drama
Written by Tom Dolby, Nicole Brending and Abdi Nazemian; from a story by Tom Dolby
Directed by Tom Dolby

Alzheimer’s hurts not only the initial victim, but perhaps even more so those close to the person with the disease. It’s the friends and family members who must watch a loved one’s mind slowly recede. Tom Dolby’s new film catches that torture, along with the moments of love and happiness that still pop up, reminding you of someone who once was whole.

By calling the film The Artist’s Wife, Dolby tells us immediately who this heart-rending motion picture is about. The film is not about a famous painter with serious dementia, but about the woman he married. Lena Olin plays Claire, the famous man’s wife, and she carries the film. She’s in almost every scene. It’s her story; not his.

Claire is married to Richard, a famous artist who is literally losing his mind (Bruce Dern). He still teaches a painting class, but his erratic behavior terrifies the students. We learn soon enough that even when he had a healthy brain, he was still not an easy person to live with. He had a drinking problem. Much more telling, his daughter from an earlier marriage doesn’t want to have anything to do with him.

Claire used to paint and had at least had some sort of career doing so. But her husband’s work eclipsed hers, and she hasn’t painted for some time. She’s thinking of starting to paint again.

The two clearly still love each other, even if Richard’s love is unreliable and Claire’s often comes to the breaking point. They even still have sex (the character’s ages are never mentioned, but Dern is currently 84).

Much of the story follows Claire’s attempts to make a connection between that above-mentioned daughter, Angela (Juliet Rylance), and her father. Claire hopes that Angela and her son can make a connection before the old man’s memory disappears entirely. In one of the few joyful scenes, Richard teaches his young grandson how to paint in oils.

I should point out that none of the characters in this film have money problems. Claire and Richard live in a large, stylish house with a studio in the country. When Richard buys a ridiculously ugly clock with a five-figure price tag, Claire seems annoyed, not terrified. Angela lives in a large Manhattan apartment and has a sleep-in babysitter.

We can expect great performances from Olin and Dern; they’ve been giving us magic for decades. The lesser-known Rylance also gives a very good performance as the daughter who doesn’t want her father in her life.

I hope that a lot of people will see The Artist’s Wife. If you’re lucky enough to grow old with someone, something like this may be in your future.

The Artist’s Wife will be streaming through the Roxie and the Rafael.