On the surface, The Wife appears to be a movie about a woman who is dominated and overshadowed by her famous husband. But director Björn Runge’s film is a more complex story than a simple tale of an aggrieved spouse. At the heart of the film is a well orchestrated and insidious fraud perpetrated by both partners, expertly portrayed by Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce. Audiences will start out sympathising with Joan Castleman (Close) but as she herself says she’s far more ‘complicated’ than a simple victim and by the end of the film, viewers may feel themselves incredulously empathising with her Nobel-prize winning husband Joe (Pryce).
The Wife, adapted for the screen by Jane Anderson from Meg Wolitzer’s novel, tells the story of successful writer Joe Castleman and his wife Joan. Joe has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and is invited to the prize giving ceremony in Stockholm along with Joan and his troubled son David (Max Irons). What follows is a portrait of a marriage in crisis in which the the tension between husband and wife slowly and surely builds to a climax. Joe has been awarded the highest literary honour on the planet, but it appears that he may not have completely achieved this accolade quite under his own merit.
Many stories could be told about the neglected and overlooked talented wives of famous men. In the past, history was written about men by other men and so the contributions of women can be hidden in the shadows cast by their more lauded husbands. It is in this patriarchal world that the young Joan (played by Close’s daughter Annie Starke), a creative writing student embarks on a relationship with her English Professor Joe Castleman (Harry Lloyd) in the 1960s. Told in non-intrusive and insightful flashbacks, the beginnings of Joe and Joan’s relationship shows how male privilege can not only stifle the creative ambitions of a woman but also lead to a destructive power imbalance within a marriage.
On the surface of the story, Joe is the villain of the piece. A bullish man with a heart condition who gobbles up rich, fattening and sugary foods but refuses to let his wife smoke because he wants her to be ‘healthy.’ Pryce delivers a brilliant performance of a blustering, domineering individual, the very opposite of his reserved and intelligent wife. Joe takes up so much space in every crowd that he seems to suck the oxygen from everyone else in the room. He is unable to even meet the other Nobel Prize winners at a reception without feeling threatened. He is ultimately an insecure person, initially taking his wife’s creativity when it is offered to him in the early stages of their relationship, instead of fighting for her to be published in her own right. In two brilliantly contrasting scenes he makes Joan bounce on the bed with him while exclaiming excitedly ‘We are getting published!’ which many years later morphs into ‘I won the Nobel!’ emphasising how his perception of their joint writing has changed. Petulant when he is not indulged and sulking when he does not have her attention, he is an easy character to dislike.
But to simply dislike Joe and sympathise with Joan is to do the The Wife a disservice. Glenn Close, in perhaps one of the finest performances of her career, portrays a woman who is almost as equally to blame for her isolation from the literary world. Close’s masterful acting is best displayed in the close ups on her face so the audience can chart the subtle changes in her expression. When, listening on the end of a phone, she hears Joe has won the Nobel Prize her face morphs from shock and joy to something akin to horror. As the film goes on, cracks start to appear in her calm outward appearance. Her gracious manner and willingness to appease Joe in every situation starts to feel insidious. There is an untruthfulness to the way she evades questions from her son and a pestering journalist (played by Christian Slater with an authentic sliminess). Even more painful for Joan is the realisation that Joe’s first wife, having broken free of him, has gone on to forge a successful career, something Joan could have had if she had had the courage to leave him herself.
Joan does not really covet the trappings of fame, but does appear to have enjoyed the lifestyle that the books published under her husband’s name have bought her over the years. She shies away from the limelight but still wants recognition for her work. Whereas Joe loves the limelight but cares little for the literary details of the books they have written. It is only when the Nobel Prize is up for grabs that both parties are forced to confront the lies they have told to their family, friends, publisher and even to the wider world.
There is a wonderful scene later in the film where Joe and Joan fight in the back of a limo over the Nobel Prize Medal. Like much of the film it is a dark scene that also is amusing and vaguely ridiculous. Joe in a fit of rage throws the medal out the car window and yet he can’t bear to leave it in the snow in the street, making the limo driver retrieve it. His repentance is unconvincing and insincere. He loves the praise too much. In contrast to him, Joan lies about wanting the praise. She appears serene, but underneath the lack of recognition of her work makes her seethe. She is adept at lying. When Joe finally asks her if she loves him, she replies with the same cypher-like expression that she has carefully practised her whole life. Who can tell if she is lying? But then how much can you truly love someone who benefits so excessively from your talent when you yourself are completely unrecognised for it?
There are other nice touches in The Wife. The evocative and swelling soundtrack and the filming of Stockholm in the winter looking bleak, dark and confusing. Most of the action takes place in rooms, both claustrophobic and highly decorated, like a maze Joe and Joan have built for themselves over years culminating in the Nobel Prize ceremony. The mechanics of the ceremony itself are portrayed as bewildering and the rich food, the wealth, the praise, the accolades and awards feel excessive like the sickly sweet cookie that Joe chokes on on the plane to Sweden at the start of the film.
At times the film is let down by some heavy handed symbolism that does feel contrived and cliched, such as snow falling outside a window as Joe suffers from a heart attack (his favourite literary quote referred to falling snow) and the repeated references to walnuts, gifts that Joe gives to his extra-marital conquests. Even male dominance and privilege is aggressively pushed in a series of predictable scenes; early in the film a room of female literature students are lectured to by a male professor using male pronouns to illustrate his arguments. Later, a room of all male publishers dismiss a female author while a secretary serves them coffee. Perhaps the most unsophisticated metaphor was the image of a plane flying off towards a new horizon as Joan is set free from the burden of being Joe’s wife.
Despite these small directional missteps, The Wife is an intriguing film about multi-dimensional characters caught up in a web of deceit coping with the destructive influence they have on each other. There are two gender role reversals that take place during the course of the film. Stereotypes are played with and subverted. The viewer’s sympathies are manipulated and then exposed. As the credits roll, viewers will ask themselves: “Where does my allegiance lie? With the Wife? Who is she really?”
The Wife is now on general release in UK cinemas.