The Wife Review
The Wife (2017) | Dir. Björn Runge | Cast: Christian Slater, Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Max Irons | Writers: Jane Anderson (screenplay by), Meg Wolitzer (based on the novel "The Wife" by)
Glenn Close has already bagged a Best Actress Golden Globe for her beautifully nuanced performance in The Wife, with an Oscar expected to follow. In truth, she – and her co-star Jonathan Pryce – are the main reasons to see the film, a passable melodrama that starts promisingly but falls apart at the end.
Based on a 2003 novel by Meg Wolitzer and set in the early ’90s, it sees acclaimed author Joe Castleman (Pryce) win the Nobel Prize for Literature and decamp with his wife Joan (Close) from Connecticut to Stockholm for the lavish ceremony. But the pair harbour a big secret and Joe’s wheedling wannabe biographer, Nathanial Bone (Christian Slater), is ready to expose it.
Joan – a gifted writer and very much the brains of the relationship – is seen in flashbacks to the ’60s concluding that she has little future as a novelist due to the publishing industry’s endemic sexism (“Don’t you ever think you can get their attention,” she is told). Hand in hand with Joe, she opts to take a different path, even though it is one that ultimately leaves her miserable and marginalised. In truth, these flashbacks, featuring Harry Lloyd and Annie Starke as younger versions of the Castlemans, feel entirely expository and rather clunky.
Directed by Björn Runge (who gave us 2003’s excellent but little seen portmanteau drama, Daybreak), the film’s strongest suit is its exploration of Joe and Joan’s 40-year marriage, taking its time to slowly unveil the fractures and fissures that underpin it. The fact their names are so similar flags up the pair’s interdependence and they share a bond that is as mutually beneficial as it is mutually destructive. She babies him, he feels undermined by her. She stores up resentment like a squirrel hoards nuts for winter, he’s a serial philanderer, even trying it on with a photographer young enough to be his granddaughter.
Close’s Joan is a tiny ball of pent-up frustration and fury, especially in those moments where she shoots Joe a look that makes you believe she could gleefully throttle him and bring the movie to an abrupt end. Problem is, as much as she feels betrayed and belittled by her husband, she loves him too and that dichotomy is what makes The Wife genuinely captivating for its first 80 minutes or so. Close articulates every bit of it perfectly, while Swedish filmmaker Runge – who has worked extensively in theatre – goes to great lengths to capture the subtleties of her facial expressions and changing moods. He's known as an "actors' director" and it is easy to see why.
Pryce has received only a fraction of his co-star’s acting kudos for the film but is similarly terrific. Joe is a study in awfulness but one who never slips into caricature. From his dull, over-rehearsed dinner-party anecdotes and need to impress with literary quotes, to his wandering eye, he’s not so much a monster as a creep. You feel nothing but contempt for the old goat, especially when he invokes his working-class roots or Jewishness, parts of his identity you suspect he has barely given a serious thought in years.
Unfortunately, for all its early promise, The Wife ultimately underwhelms due in part to its predictable climax. Early on, Joe mentions he has had a heart bypass and must regularly take pills to ameliorate his condition. It’s the medical equivalent of Chekhov’s Gun – a health issue flagged up in the first act is sure to reappear in the finale and, disappointingly, it does, much to the detriment of the film. In fact, The Wife fizzles at the exact moment proceedings threaten to get truly interesting and its rushed ending is unsatisfying.
Also problematic is a cast of characters who are almost entirely objectionable. The Castleman’s bitter, entitled son, David (Max Irons), is the worst offender but you struggle to like any of this grubby bunch, including Joan, who we learn helped break up Joe’s first marriage and instigated the big secret they’re so keen to keep covered up.
Sure, we feel sorry for Close's character and the way she is rendered virtually invisible by her husband’s success and it’s easy to see how her plight resonates with the #MeToo movement’s calls for equal representation and recognition. But for all her unhappiness, Joan has never known real struggle. She comes from a privileged background and lives an affluent life in a big house in Connecticut. It’s hardly Les Miserables, is it?
Just a “behind the scenes” puff piece, in which the cast and crew compete to see who can pay each other the greatest compliment (Runge is called “The most feminist of male directors”), and a spoiler-free trailer. A commentary track featuring Close and Pryce would have been quite something, I suspect.