Based on the novel by Meg Wolitzer (adapted by Jane Anderson), The Wife is the story of a nearly 40-year marriage that is held together by the same things that threaten to tear it apart—lies, treachery and secrets.
As the film opens, author Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) is awoken by a call informing him that he has won the Nobel Prize for literature for a body of work that spans decades and has moved countless readers. His wife Joan (Glenn Close) seems both legitimately excited for him and somewhat torn for reasons that unfold over the course of the movie. The recognition represents a great deal to her in terms of the sacrifices she has made over her life with Joe so that he could do this work. But she has also endured his engaging in a handful of affairs and the derision of their two children, particularly son David (Max Irons), who is attempting to kickstart his writing career and finds it difficult to ask for or receive his father’s feedback.
Joan does not seek the spotlight the way Joe does, and while Close’s portrayal is enough to help us fill in the gaps, director Björn Runge (Happy End, Mouth to Mouth) provides quite a number of flashbacks to decades earlier when Joan (played as a young woman by Close’s real-life daughter Annie Starke) was a student of Joe’s (Harry Lloyd) in college. She showed tremendous promise even as a student, but she was told by both men and women that her being a woman would hold her back from getting published (this is the late 1950s, so this was likely true); after being told this a number of times, she simply gives up as she turns herself over to the relationship with (and eventual marriage to) Joe, who was still struggling with his writing at the time.
The Wife toys with the expectations that “behind every great man is a great woman,” and it seems that throughout their life together, they play their roles as if the cliche was written about them—he the profound novelist speaking to the masses; she the great artistic supporter and perhaps even muse. But the film doesn’t use the flashbacks simply to show the early years of their coupling; it provides early examples of a pattern of behavior and the process by which Joe’s novels were birthed. To a degree, these moments also show how Joan could stay in love with someone who needed to be so selfish and vain to make his work happen at all.
In the present-day scenes, Joan is hounded by a writer (Christian Slater) who has made his intentions to write a biography of Joe known for years. He wants to do so with the family’s cooperation, but now he has a publisher on board, so he’s planning to write it regardless and potentially reveal many secrets about their marriage that no one wants known. Slater plays his character as a perfect combination of sympathetic (he isn’t above flirting with Joan to milk details from her) and mildly threatening to the status quo. Still, despite her demeanor, Joan knows a thing or two about manipulating people when she needs to as well, and she plays the writer as much as he thinks he’s playing her.
Watching Close and Pryce together is like observing a masterclass in talking around a subject that has clearly been the focus of their lives for almost as long as they’ve known each other, but it’s rarely spoken about. I have to admit, I’m impressed with the trailers for The Wife, which do a remarkable job of summarizing what the film is about without giving away any details of its biggest secrets. They are important to most of the story and revealed early, but not knowing them going into the film is key to appreciating the way they weave through every aspect of the plot.
Close spends a great deal of the film in a state that makes it seem like she’d rather remain invisible, even asking Joe not to thank her in his acceptance speech. In a single moment, she makes Joan feel lived in, under-appreciated, much loved and completely drained of her humanity. It’a not just a great character for her, but a tough one for any actor to occupy because it asks them to divert, even bury, every instinct an actor has to shine and stand out in a scene. For any of its flaws and confused messages, The Wife is a powerful showcase for Close, and that alone is enough of a reason to experience it.
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