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‘The Artist’s Wife’ review: A film about identity can’t find its own

“The Artist’s Wife” can, at times, come off as a collage of other, better movies.

It’s the story of a woman, Claire Smythson (Lena Olin), who is a gifted painter and just so happens to be the wife of a much more famous painter, Richard Smythson (Bruce Dern). The setup closely resembles 2018’s “The Wife,” starring Glenn Close — but in this case, the stakes are lower. As for her renowned husband, he is suffering from increasingly crippling dementia, but the portrait of neurological decline is less affecting than in the new film “The Father,” which comes out this winter and features a triumphant performance by Anthony Hopkins.

New takes on old issues are swell — and necessary — but they must add some fresh color. “The Artist’s Wife” is too been there, Dern that.

Richard’s illness first becomes apparent when he behaves boorishly in the art class he teaches at a local college.

“What do you paint with?” he asks one woman. “This kid next to you paints with his c - - k. You paint with your c - - t.” It’s gross, but Richard is soon forgiven as his cognitive abilities wane.

Lena Olin, Bruce Dern, 2019. © Strand Releasing / Courtesy
Lena Olin and Bruce Dern in “The Artist’s Wife.”Strand Releasing

Meanwhile, his younger wife Claire is forced into the role of a caretaker, and feels stymied by her aging spouse. As Richard’s condition advances, she tries to reunite him with his estranged adult daughter Angela (Juliet Rylance), a lesbian with a young son, who she often leaves in the care of a male friend, Danny (Avan Jogia).

That family drama — particularly as it relates to Danny — feels forced, and the film never delves into the particulars of a supposedly celebrated artist’s unique mind and lifestyle. Richard paints by himself in a shed out back. So what? A lot of guys have man caves.

All too quickly, writer-director Tom Dolby’s film then becomes about Claire reclaiming her own life apart from her husband, even though he’s still around. She can finally be more than a cocktail party plus-one. Claire emerges from the sidelines with the help of an artist played by Stefanie Powers, who goes fully nude for no reason and adapts a vague European accent that makes her sound like a circus fortune-teller.

Olin is always an electric, sensual performer, no doubt about it, and she is the film’s saving grace. You’re concerned for Claire as her life spirals out of control — even as where she eventually ends up is totally implausible. Dern, partly due to unsubtle direction, is too broad in a role that needs more nuance.

The final scene leaves you thinking: For a film about a woman recovering her lost identity, it doesn’t really have much of its own.

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