Film Review – The Wife
I’m going to meander a bit before I get to my review of Björn Runge’s new film The Wife. The source material for this film is a novel by Meg Wolitzer, who is one of my favorite contemporary writers. I don’t usually care for literary fiction, but I find her books to be well written, brimming with interesting ideas, and often focused on things besides unhappy families. (It’s the focus on familial misery that really turns me off modern literary fiction. I have my own horrible family of origin; I don’t need to read other folks’ rehashing of their parental issues.) Wolitzer is often categorized as “women’s” fiction instead of literary, and I can only think that’s because she’s a woman writing about women, and that combination cannot possibly produce great literature. Women’s lives are too small and trivial to be of interest to the intelligent man. And while more and more women are receiving accolades and awards, they still have to push hard to get out of the chick lit section of the bookstore unless they are writing genre fiction.
The Wife stars Glenn Close as Joan Castleman, the spouse of lauded writer Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce). He’s just been informed he’s won the Nobel Prize for literature, and he, his wife, and their son David (Max Irons) travel to Sweden for the ceremony. Joan is happy for Joe, but the increased attention on him means that she is also in the spotlight more than she is comfortable with. She is a private person who gave up her own writing aspirations to support her husband and mother his children. In one scene, she takes to heart the advice given by a female writer, played delightfully by Elizabeth McGovern; it’s a constant uphill and fruitless battle to get men to read her work, and it’s not worth it. While Joan needs to travel with her husband to make sure he takes his pills and get to his appointments on time, she seems to find the whole thing a bit tiresome. Her feelings regarding the prize are further complicated when her husband’s would-be biographer Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater) invites her for a drink. She accepts, even though Joe has made it clear he will not cooperate with Bone in any way, and whiles away an afternoon gently flirting with Bone and doing her best to dodge his questions. She ends the conversation when he intimates to her that he suspects Joe has a secret even more disastrous to his public image than the multitude of affairs he has engaged in over the years. The possibility of this secret becoming known forces Joan to contemplate her life and what place her marriage will take in it going forward.
Glenn Close is phenomenal in this, as is Jonathan Pryce – although Close has the much better role. Joan is smart, quietly forceful, and inscrutable in keeping her secrets. It is this amazing performance that makes this film so enjoyable to watch, but also hurts it because nothing else is as good as her. The film is interspersed with flashbacks to Joe and Joan’s early life together, and those scenes just aren’t as strong as the contemporary ones. The woman who plays the younger version of Joan, Annie Starke, is Close’s real life daughter and she credibly plays the part, but the younger versions of Joe and Joan just aren’t given much to do. We are meant to see the origins of their relationship and understand why Joan has consistently sacrificed to further Joe’s career, but the audience sees nothing in Joe that appears to deserve that kind of devotion.
Joe is a problem. He’s beautifully played by Pryce, but there’s nothing in the writing to indicate that he is anything but a giant man baby. He was Joan’s writing professor in college, and not only cheats on and leaves his wife for her, but abandons his first child when ending his marriage. And once he has Joan, he cannot remain faithful. But yet, through many different types of betrayals, she not only stays with him, but fights hard to preserve his legacy. She is the power behind the throne – at one point referring to herself as a kingmaker – but never lets herself take any of the credit. And for what? Joe? Really? I don’t believe it. The Wife is definitely worth watching, but I found it deeply frustrating in the end. Close gives a nuanced performance, but it’s not enough to support an entire film.