The Wife review: Somewhere near the start of Bjorn L. Runge’s and screenwriter Jane Anderson’s adaption of the original Meg Wolitzer novel, we come across what seems to be the surface dynamic of the protagonists. Joe, who has just won the Nobel prize for literature (in a breathtaking opening sequence that uses little but an off-camera voice from Sweden and an alternating close up of his and Joan’s overawed faces on the split line) says that it is thanks to what he has preserved around him that he could ever have reached such career highs. “I am I plus my surroundings,” in reverent reference to his family, whom he preserves around him, as helpful parts of himself. Only, it is immediately apparent that he does not preserve it at all. That is all Joan. She is the mediator between children (a daughter, and a wannabe writer son), and between Joe and the fuss surrounding him. She does little else except prepare her husband for the real-world happenings outside of his own genius talent – one watchful eye on the press and the other on his dietary habits. At first.
The Wife review
The space of distinction between a celebrated public persona and the reality of the person beneath almost always makes mesmerising material for a film, none more so than here. Joe is his own spectacle, at the top of a dizzyingly flawless social and literary obelisk, but the film is more interested in the foundation, it’s titular shadow: the wife.
She’s all sense, where he’s all temper. She’s all restraint, where he’s all in. This is particularly well noted with his unending appetite, perhaps an indicator of deeper concerns. Jonathan Pryce, as Joe, admirably spends a hefty portion of his dialogue chewing.
After the initial fuss, the two of them, along with their grown son (Max Irons), must journey to Stockholm where they wait for the writer to receive his medal during the grand ceremony. There, they will be accosted on all sides by forces attempting to knock the fascinating equilibrium they have reached off balance, including a reporter and hopeful ‘Joe Cattleman biographer’ who is obsessed with bringing up the past. On his belt are such toxic treasures like Joan’s own halted writing career, and Joe’s many infidelities. As well as this, the tempting presence of a beautiful young photographer, a clammering cluster of admirers, and their own family drama, all rock the boat. The young David Castleman becomes enraged at his Father’s continual refusal to acknowledge his son’s short story. It seems a pity, and a perplexing thing, that such a revolutionary writer entrenches himself in such old gender conventions. As well as a passive wife, he has a good dose of stilted father-son rivalry and emasculation games in there too. Joan remains, throughout, a wily observer of everyone’s inner turmoil, but seems majestically bereft of her own.
There is also a flashback and forward structure favoured by classic dramas. but the film does well to keep this tightly managed, lingering only on pivotal moments of the Joe and Joan from generations ago, when she was his student and he, her pompous literary professor. This includes a book reading they attend where Joan has a revealing, and scathingly timely, conversation with an author about the impossibility of too many ‘great’ female writers in a male (critics, publishers, editors) dominated industry. “A writer has to write” young Joan protests, still caught up in her own ambition. No, she is told: “A writer has to be read, honey.”
It is just enough information to see how two people might have converged to become the unit they are in the present in Stockholm. Joan has nestled comfortably away into the flourish of her husband; smoothing herself out, making herself easy for him to love. It is, apparently, easier for her to have his affection than try to win the affection of a readership. She can traverse the wishes and temperament of one man rather than try to scale an impenetrable patriarchal industry; one man over hundreds. A thoughtful power move in limited conditions, as it were.
Jonathan Pryce must not be forfeited from the conversation about this film. He truly delivers a career-best with the difficult, blustery Joe, and holds his tremendous own in Revolutionary road style domestics, when the tribulations of their marriage must come out.
But, in the spirit of the film, we must talk about her. Glorious her. Glenn Close’s Joan carries off the un-ruffle-able, empathetically dexterous nature of well-adored matriarchs — sitting on her later years like a swan on still water. Pangs of familiarity of the grandmothers of old fashioned stories or old memories abound when you look at her. It’s hard to say, with someone of Close’s legacy, who or what is her best performance, but this is special: a showcase of palpable dignity, and intelligence. She has astonishingly moving slights of expression watching her husband receive his relentless accolades, from seats and dinner tables and even in bed when they’re awoken by a choir in his honour. Indescribable emotions play out on her fine-boned face like flickers of firelight on a marble mantle. It must be one of her best, ever.
Joan subverts all expectations of a woman in her position. She is without that ‘wounded wife’ brand of bitterness, jealously, or insecurity. It’s as refreshing as a bluster of cold Stockholm snow. Her only frustration is towards Joe’s incessant need to drag her into the light with him, crediting her with the supportive spousal role we have all heard in awards speeches. She finds it more painful to be in the narrative of his success as a long-suffering woe-begone dame, than to be absent from it full stop.
We don’t know exactly why this is, except for a slow, slight-handed building of clues brilliantly interwoven into the dialogue. When the big reveal finally occurs of what kind of wife she actually is, and just who Joan and Joe are to each other and together, it is an explosively satisfying reveal. It’s almost more perfect in the moments when she says nothing at all – although the altercations feed the films drama so well when they do bubble over. Close and Pryce are flawless sparring partners.
If it’s not too ironic to say, the both of them should be absolutely drowned in attention come awards season. Bring on the speeches. The only question on anyone’s lips after seeing this film, apart from why Joan would hold onto Joe this long even (he really does chew very loudly, with his mouth open) is why Glenn Close hasn’t been holding onto an Oscar even longer.
Bjorn masters the delicate use of the unspoken, but neither is he afraid to unleash the astonishing power of his leads, particularly Glenn Close. As the story goes, words are powerful, but almost just as much when they are not utilised as we would expect. A deliciously clever film about a very, very clever woman.
The Wife review by Abi Silverthorne, September 2018.