James Brown once famously sang that “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” and despite continued strides taken in gender equality in recent years, The Wife is the kind of story designed to remind us that women still have a long way to go when it comes to acceptance, worth and value.
Meg Wolitzer’s novel packed a punch when released in 2003 and efforts have been made to adapt her tale of strained marriage and toxic masculinity ever since, but you sense the stars aligned for director Bjorn Runge given the cultural climate of recent years when it comes to The Wife being made. It is a film very much part of a conversation about the entitlement of the male species, and the inherent prejudice and bias that has existed in society when it comes to gender for not just decades, but centuries. Glenn Close’s central Joan Castleman is a scion for those potent frustrations about gender politics that have raged for years now.
The set-up is the most nakedly self-serving when it comes to the arrogance and ego of man. Joan’s husband Joe, played with an expert balance of outward grace and inner self-absorption by Jonathan Pryce, has been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992 and during the trip to Stockholm to accept the award, Christian Slater’s journalist pursues them with a destructive theory: that Joan writes Joe’s novels and that *she* is the true, once in a lifetime literary genius. Cue flashbacks to the 50s and 60s which show the emergence of Joan (played by Close’s real life daughter Annie Starke) and Joe’s relationship, and whether the accusations are true or not.
That is the question which pervades the entirety of The Wife – are Joan and Joe lying? Runge presents this less as a mystery, more an inevitability; the truth is coded into dialogue, language and presentation from the very beginning, and in many ways the truth is always in Close’s eyes. Runge’s direction is relaxed and unobtrusive, aware he has two titanic thespians making more of what is a relatively straightforward script, and building nuance into two complicated characters. While Joe may seem venal and self-serving, his motivations are not black and white, and nor are Joan’s – she is neither victim nor heroine, she rather simply is a product of an era and system she found a place within.
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This is, therefore, a picture which lives and dies on how strong the protagonists are and while Pryce is excellent, Close is often quite remarkable. There is one moment, toward the end, where she could justify a possible Best Actress Oscar win with her reaction to something over around ten seconds alone – it is gut wrenching, heartbreaking stuff, delivered with such powerful yet un-melodramatic poise, you’re left reeling. The Wife, as the character portrait of a woman existing inside the microcosm of an unbalanced gender construct, got the casting spot on with Glenn Close. It is hard to imagine the film being half as good without her.
Mainly because The Wife, on a surface level, never really stands out as strong filmmaking beyond Close’s performance, and her dynamic with Pryce. Max Irons gets saddled with the grumpy role of a sullen, jealous son in tow, while Slater’s weasely biographer is a cliche ripped out of a tackier book. It reminds you at times of Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, but it lacks the nuance and utter, quiet devastation of that film’s climactic denouement. Instead The Wife chooses to end on a fairly predictable beat of bitter optimism that feels earned in one respect but dramatically conventional in another.
This release, while lacking the deeper insight of releases festooned with commentary tracks and deep-dive documentaries, does have an almost half-hour long featurette which gives a solid précis of the production side of The Wife, adding some interesting background and context. Destined perhaps to be a quiet drama, buoyed by and seen by more thanks to Close’s Oscar nod, The Wife nonetheless is a timely, poised and affecting story of a woman’s struggle to find her place amongst the established patriarchy, and whether she even wants to challenge it in the first place.
Should we be rooting for Glenn Close to win the gong? Just maybe…
The Wife is now available on DVD/BluRay from Lionsgate UK.