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There are as many ways to craft a story about dementia as there are people living with it and dying from it. No two patients experience it precisely the same way, which makes it a rich vein for cinematic exploration, even including science fiction (2017’s Marjorie Prime ) and the shatteringly effective drama The Father , which recently premiered at the Toronto film festival.
Director and co-writer Tom Dolby enlists two powerhouse actors – Lena Olin and Bruce Dern, both Oscar nominated – to play Claire and Richard Smythson in The Artist’s Wife . As the title makes clear, he’s the artist and she’s the wife. The opening scene even features the two of them being interviewed, with Richard explaining that he makes the paintings and she makes their life.
Except that it’s never that simple. We soon learn that Claire once had her own budding career as an artist. And after she learns of Richard’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis – the film rightly points out that it’s never a definitive finding, though some form of dementia may be clear – she starts navigating her way back into her art, painting for the first time in a while, and visiting an old friend in the business.
I want him to know you before he forgets
She also tries to reconnect with her stepdaughter, Angela (Juliet Rylance), though the younger woman’s initial reception is frosty. But Claire perseveres: “I want him to know you before he forgets.”
In many ways, The Artist’s Wife follows a fairly traditional path. Richard’s memory problems worsen, and with the confusion comes anger, though it’s hard to say how much of his moodiness is driven by fear, and how much is directly the result of his condition. Some of it may also just be him. It’s clear he was never the warm, cuddly type.
Where the film truly excels is showing the burdens placed on both the dementia patient and those closest to him or her. Richard talks about how everyone and everything in his life is starting to disappear; at first he seems to be referring to the death of old friends, but soon it’s clear he means the memory of them as well.
And Claire finds herself exhausted by his seemingly random outbursts, as when he suddenly resurrects a six-year-old argument about a suspected affair. Dolby’s film mines drama by focusing on aberrant behaviour as opposed to mere memory loss. The latter, while devastating, is at least expected. The former can feel like an unprovoked assault.
Both actors are terrific, though it should be pointed out that at 84, Dern is busier than ever. He has nine movies in the works, and an average of eight credits in each of the last three years, in everything from indie fare to Tarantino. There’s a joke in there somewhere about how, when you’re over the hill, you start to pick up speed.
It must also be said – and this is not a criticism of The Artist’s Wife – that the dementia drama sub-genre remains a remarkably white affair. Look at the posters for such excellent examples as Away From Her, Still Alice and The Leisure Seeker , and you’ll see a parade of older white faces. So many diverse people are touched by this condition; I want to see even more of their stories.
The Artist’s Wife opens Sept. 26 in Victoria, Saskatoon, Regina, Waterloo, Hamilton and Toronto, and Oct. 2 in Edmonton and Ottawa.
3.5 stars out of 5
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020