Film Review: The Wife

Wonderful film about an award-winning writer and his sacrificing wife who share a dark secret, with great performances by stars Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce.
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The Wife could easily become another annoying, predictable film about an affluent American wife feeling disregarded by her successful husband, her own career aspirations, and worse, her very humanity lost in the long marital journey. Three-plus decades down the road, her unquestioning support of hubby, not to mention her place in the world (her sense of it anyway), is beginning to crack.

But Björn Runge’s movie is so much more, though many may assess it as such and praise it on those grounds, viewing it through a distorted feminist lens, a reductive spin if ever there was one.

It’s adapted from Meg Wolitzer’s lovely novel (that despite its many virtues is less nuanced than the film) and opens in the Castlemans’ well-appointed Connecticut home in 1992. The Clinton era is not incidental. It’s a literal and metaphorical framework with no shortage of narrative parallels in the White House: the formidable First Lady, the charismatic President and his well-publicized peccadilloes.

Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), a Philip Roth-esque novelist—or, more precisely, a character out of a Roth novel—is in a tailspin, unable to sleep and wolfing down comfort foods. He’s waiting for that pre-dawn call (the call he’s been dreaming about over a lifetime) from the Nobel Prize committee informing him he has been tapped to receive the most coveted of global literature awards. Well, the call comes in. Out of his mind with joy, he and his patrician wife Joan (the extraordinary Glenn Close), whose expression fleetingly hints at private pain, jump up and down on their bed, holding hands, intoning, “I won the Nobel! I won the Nobel!” The choreography on the mattress is their longstanding celebratory ritual dating back to his first book sale.

Parts of the story are told through flashbacks when young Joan (Annie Stark, Close’s daughter) was young Joe’s (Harry Lloyd) creative-writing student at Smith College, where she falls in love with him, a larger-than-life, romantic professor who has published a few stories and is all the more seductive as a rebellious figure and so at odds with her cloistered, bigoted parents who are repelled because he’s a writer and, worse, a Jew. (Hey, it’s the late ’50s and early ’60s.) Further, he is married and the couple has a toddler; Joan serves as their babysitter. But in short order, Joe and Joan are romantically, sexually and emotionally entangled.

Joan becomes wife number two, fully aware that Joe has a wandering eye. It becomes clear he is an incorrigible philanderer—Dionysian excess his signature—but he is faithful to Joan in his fashion. Admittedly he needs her in an unexpected way. Many of their friends and colleagues have suspicions, including hack biographer Nathaniel Bone (a fine performance by Christian Slater), an insidious weasel, who is determined to write a tell-all book about their lives. He’s on the plane with them to Sweden and surfaces at the hotel and elsewhere. He becomes the catalyst in the narrative that unfolds as he reveals himself to be a sorry, desperate figure in his own right.

The Wife is an astute character study thanks in large part to Jane Anderson’s winning screenplay; her adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge for HBO was also a delicately layered dramatization of seemingly even-keeled lives that are twisted and roiled.

The finely tuned performances in The Wife are spot-on too, especially Close as the constant dutiful spouse, making sure Joe takes his various heart medications while at the same time suppressing her own disappointment and anger. Joan begs Joe not to publicly thank her as his better half; his ever-ready tribute at all award ceremonies. It’s unwittingly brutal and Joe doesn’t have a clue. He is infantile to the core, the classic narcissist.

The centerpiece of their relationship is not difficult to surmise fairly early. They are writing partners. In fact, Joan is the writer—Joe’s efforts are stilted and lifeless—though the characters, the world from which they emerge and, most central, the narrative’s overarching literary vision are his. Their collaboration is fascinating all by itself, despite raising questions of precedence and even credibility. Still, it’s not inconceivable, and within the parameters of this film it works and makes their bond that much more complex—certainly more so than the novel’s, where Joan is the only creator onboard, with Joe playing virtually no role shy of copy editor. Joan has quashed her own ambitions in order to write Joe’s novels in that pre-lib era that has morphed into a protracted way of life for the Castlemans. That’s leaned on very heavily in the book.

The feminist views are voiced in the film, too, by one Elaine Mozell (an amusing Elizabeth McGovern), a comically embittered writer who urges a young Joan to steer clear of a writing career because the odds are slim that she’ll get anywhere. But unlike Wolitzer’s Joan, who ultimately regrets not pursuing her own literary dreams, in the film—and this is a daring choice on Anderson’s part—she’s never been especially enterprising on her own behalf, suspecting her literary talents are small anyway.

Joan spells it out and we have no reason to believe she’s deluding herself. That said, as her relationship with Joe grows increasingly tenuous thanks to his sexual escapades that everyone knows about (and that she has spent a lifetime ignoring), her role as unacknowledged writing partner has worn thin; indeed, Joe seems to have forgotten her seminal contributions altogether.

He is self-centered, gruff and devoid of any tact or diplomacy. Still, on some level he has also been dehumanized, he points out, first as an unappreciated provider—Joan’s had a mighty comfortable lifestyle as his wife—and secondly as an embodiment of the big, bad Bohemian Jew that was so off-putting to her family and thus attractive to her. Consider his sharp-edged comment about the clichéd parts they’ve come to play. “I’m the blowhard husband, and she’s the stoic wife repressing a secret,” he spells it out. “We’ve seen it all before.”

The devil is in the details and there are so many fine ones here, not least Joe’s troubled relationship with his surly son David (Max Irons), an aspiring writer, whose talent Joe finds negligible. Unlike Joan, who praises David’s work or pretends to, Joe doesn’t have the empathy to tell a white lie and so says nothing at all, knowing his son is desperate for an encouraging word.

At a party, Joe meets the Nobel-winning physicist, the latter introducing him to his five auspiciously accomplished adult children (all high-powered scientists). Joe can’t help comparing David unfavorably with his colleague’s offspring and attempts to camouflage his feelings by introducing David, who’s haplessly standing by, as a writer honing his skills. It is said with self-effacing modesty coupled with bravado, thereby making the moment that much more excruciating.

Status is not supposed to be important to Joe, but it is. The same for glowing reviews, sales, translations, awards and fancy dress balls acknowledging achievement. The film lightly touches on themes of celebrity and the cult of personality, legacy and mortality, along with its defining nugget: family intimacy, with all its tenderness on the one hand and brutish intrusion on the other.

These topics are rarely examined in films, though two films come to mind: Noah Baumbach’s insightful The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, a haunting work that parses a long-term comfortable marriage which begins to disintegrate when an event from the past surfaces forcing the adoring wife (Charlotte Rampling) to reappraise her entire life with a deeply divided man (Tom Courtenay) whom she doesn’t know at all.

But more closely allied with The Wife is The Meyerowitz Stories, which also zeroes in on the East Coast cultural elite (Woody Allen world without his snarky, self-congratulatory tone), headed by a flawed, aging patriarch and a painter (Dustin Hoffman) struggling with everyone around him and wondering towards the end of his life if his art is any good at all.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the films also overlap in their presentation of highly literate, liberal-minded Jewish men and their WASP wives, who step right out of the Jewish man’s stereotypical fantasy and prove to the men, whose self-image is a driving force, that they are truly anti-tribal sophisticates. From the women’s point of view, the husbands are equally as exotically/erotically “other” and thus desirable—until they’re not. The inter-ethnic marriages are almost fashion statements. None of it is talked about, but the harsher facts of the couplings are present (forgive the pomposity) subtextually in both movies.

Runge is perhaps not as panoramic in his vision as Baumbach but just as effective on a smaller scale, from the way he focuses the viewer’s attention on Close’s eyes to capturing the heady ambience of the award ceremony to the festivities that surround it and especially the lonely beauty of Stockholm on a wintry, snowy night. Cinematographer Ulf Brantas does a splendid job too.

But the lion’s share of kudos goes to Anderson and Close. The final scene says it all, as Joan makes a decision that reveals who she is and how she chooses to reclaim herself. It’s open to analysis and some might find it a copout, but to my mind it’s pure elegance, the high road personified.