The Collins English Dictionary Online defines “paint-by-numbers” as something that is “formulaic; showing no original thought or creativity.” It is a statement that is routinely used to heap scorn and derision upon art a self-appointed critic finds lacking. The dilemma that I believe is posed by Tom Dolby’s The Artist’s Wife is the question of something’s “paint-by-numberness” as being inherently a bad thing. Thus, in an attempt to force myself to avoid throwing stones, I’ve built myself a glass house by beginning my review of a film about an artist in the most clichéd manner possible.
It will not work. The Artist’s Wife never really manages to find the spark it is looking for, instead preferring to stay within the lines it has crafted for itself. Interesting moments are present, but they’re the outliers here.
The biggest conundrum at play here is that from the very instance the film sets its premise in motion, the audience can pretty much chart out exactly where the film will go. Legendary painter Richard (the indominable Bruce Dern) seems off to his wife Claire (Lena Olin). His behaviour becomes progressively more erratic in the lead-up to another of his exhibitions. Claire, a gifted artist herself who gave up her career to assist her husband, discovers that Richard has dementia. As the exhibition progresses ever closer, Claire tries to hold their lives together.
Can you guess what the concluding brush stroke here will be? I will not reveal exactly what that stroke is for those who wish to hope for some sense of uncertainty, but my earliest premonitions turned out to be brutally correct. In light of this, it is hard to suggest that The Artist’s Wife manages to really consider its subject matter. The portrait isn’t so much of an aging couple, as it is of the story of an aging couple. There is a difference.
Claire tries to help facilitate amends between Richard and some of the bridges he has burned. One involves Richard’s daughter Angela (Mark Rylance’s daughter Juliet Rylance), who resents the absentee father of her childhood. Angela, her son Gogo (Ravi Cabot-Conyers) and male nanny Danny (Avan Jogia) provide a life raft of interest here. The emotional climax of the second act involves the trio joining Claire and Richard for Christmas, wherein Richard sincerely tries (after moody coaxing) to reconcile with his estranged daughter. Even if this scene rarely deviates from the standard “regretful parent reconciles with their child” playbook, the actors provide such felt performances that the scene manages to elicit some kind of felt emotions.
The rest of this seems to mostly exist within the realms of your typical tortured genius is cruel to those around him. Think Phantom Thread meets 45 Years, but (sadly) without any poisoning and (very sadly) without any pretty dresses, and you’re probably close to approximating what The Artist’s Wife is. I have no real idea if this is an accurate representation of dementia or not. By the time Richard’s condition seems to have taken a turn for the worse, the film has already begun its descent into a very drawn out final act with a foregone conclusion.
My extensive qualms probably make it sound as if I hated this, when in reality, I think it’s just merely a frustrating missed opportunity. Dolby is specifically aiming to please an older audience, who go to smaller theaters in support of distinctly adult dramas. In this sense, The Artist’s Wife is refined. Dolby is content to simply let their actors act. The one artistic invention they allow themselves is an elliptical editing style, often jumping in time from within the same scene.
Otherwise, this is mostly a point-and-shoot film, with your standard digital colour grade. The performances are undoubtedly wonderful, and you will definitely enjoy those as much as you can. But I maintain that the art we remember is that which truly moves us, and I sadly cannot confirm that this was the case here.