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Review: ‘The Artist’s Wife,’ a satisfying if uneven portrait of a marriage

Bruce Dern and Lena Olin star in the movie "The Artist's Wife."
(Strand Releasing)

“He’s not an easy man, but he’s worth knowing,” says Claire Smythson (Lena Olin) of her famous painter-husband, Richard (Bruce Dern), in the uneven drama “The Artist’s Wife.” Unfortunately, the screenplay by director Tom Dolby, Nicole Brending and Abdi Nazemian makes a weak case for the “worth knowing” part of Claire’s assertion, largely portraying the elderly Richard as an erratic, narcissistic bully (and perhaps the world’s worst art teacher) — and not just because of the encroaching dementia that’s erasing his creative and mental canvas.

We also rarely get much sense of why he’s considered such a lauded and brilliant artist, something that could have helped paint a deeper, more captivating picture of this aging lion. Dern, relying on his usual bedraggled anger and toothy slyness, makes the most of the broad strokes he’s given to work with, but it’s an often thankless role for the acting vet.

That said, a sensitive turn by Olin combined with the script’s nicely delineated take on her long-suffering, creatively thwarted lead character, makes the film, set mainly in Long Island’s tony East Hampton, an absorbing, at times moving look at a woman caught between her own artistic and emotional desires and her devotion to a man who doesn’t seem to deserve her. (Viewers may notice echoes of the Glenn Close-Jonathan Pryce dynamic that fueled 2018’s well-regarded “The Wife.”)

Although Richard accuses Claire of only being happy if she has “something to fix” (read: “someone”) — vividly borne out by her valiant efforts to reunite a resistant Richard with Angela (Juliet Rylance), his estranged daughter from a previous wife, and Angela’s young son, Diego (Ravi Cabot-Conyers) — she eventually manages to joyfully reconnect with the painterly ambitions she left behind years ago to tend to Richard and his work.

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That this wave of free-spirited expression leads Claire to a flirtation with Diego’s appealing male nanny (Avan Jogia) proves a bit forced, but Dolby handles the interlude with grace.

Claire’s artistic renaissance ultimately plays out in a way that, if contrived, remains narratively satisfying given Claire’s deeply felt approach to a thorny choice she must make on Richard’s behalf.

Tonya Pinkins offers warm ebullience as Richard’s longtime agent, while an eternally gorgeous Stefanie Powers appears as a flamboyant art legend. Suffice to say, TV’s erstwhile Mrs. Hart reveals more than just an amusing Italian accent in her brief role.

'The Artist’s Wife'

Rated: R, for language, some graphic nudity and brief sexuality

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes

Playing: Available via Laemmle virtual cinema; also on VOD

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