Joan Castleman (Glenn Close) has intellect, charm, and elegant diplomacy. Her husband Joe (Jonathan Pryce), meanwhile, is the personification of a ditzy writer: flyaway hair, scraggly beard, incapable of having any structure to his life – whether that’s remembering to take daily medication, or marital fidelity – and entirely dependent on his wife to support him.
Joan fulfils this role with little complaint, providing him with the practical guidance he relies upon, and the forgiveness for his frequently selfish behaviour, which he takes for granted. But when Joe is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Joan’s tolerance is finally pushed to its limits, and her rising resentment is finally revealed. Their 40-year marriage reaches a moment of truth, and in its conclusion, it highlights a modern-day relevance about sexist double standards, authorship of work, and gender inequality.
Whilst it’s clear there is much love and a deep bond between Joan and Joe – early on, there’s a playful sex scene, and it’s refreshing to see a couple who are in their seventies sharing intimacy and sexual desire – sometimes their affection seems almost parental: Joe makes demands of Joan as if he were a child, and her patience with him seems almost maternal. His love for her doesn’t seem to be enough to prevent emotional betrayals, though, and within moments of their arrival at Stockholm, where Joan is accompanying Joe, alongside their son David (Max Irons), for the Nobel Prize ceremony, he’s already making moves on the young female photographer tasked with capturing his trip.
Flashbacks complement the present day, and we see that not only did their early 1950s courtship (played by Close’s real-life daughter Annie Starke, and Harry Lloyd) involve marital betrayal on his part, but as well as turning a blind eye to that, Joan also sacrificed her talent, dreams and ambitions to support Joe’s literary career soon after they got together. Outwardly, she seems content with the decisions she made, but when they’re mingling at the Nobel Prize reception, and Joe belittles her by saying to a his Nobel minders: “She’s not a writer, thank god: I’d have writer’s block if she was!”, cracks begin to appear on her otherwise stoic face. Joan’s smile cuts like a knife, her lips pressed tightly together as if all hell would break out if she loosened them.
On the edge of all this is their son David, a hopeful writer, whose desperation for his father’s professional approval provokes indignation in Joan, and egotistical rejection by Joe. Then there’s Nathaniel Bone, played with delicious slyness by Christian Slater, a journalist in pursuit of the Castlemans because he wants to write Joe’s biography, who follows them to Stockholm and befriends Joan with whisky and flirtatious charm. She seems tempted to go along with him and reveal some secrets, and their scenes together are a delightful mix of tease and tension, but her strong resolve to not be portrayed as a victim leaves him to pursue other means of obtaining his story.
Adapted by Jane Anderson from a novel by Meg Wolitzer, The Wife expands from what appears to be a happy marriage, then unfolds into a mutual personal and professional conspiracy, filled with years of pain and bitterness. The sombre direction by Björn Runge illuminates both the male vanity of Joe’s self-absorbed writer, and the complicity of Joan as his dutiful wife; really though, it just provides the solid base for a powerhouse showcase of their acting talent. Close’s performance here surely must finally provide her with the Oscar she has deserved for so many years; the suppressed resentment which slowly builds up on her face steadily throughout the film is a masterclass in screen acting.
The restraint and control she has is an acting feat: wordless, fury held in her eyes, richly theatrical in its power. The subdued and polite wife she presents early on transforms into deliciously explosive rage; where Joan ends up is a pay-off not just for her, but for the viewer too. Pryce’s portrayal of a spoilt, over-indulged man with a huge sense of entitlement, complements Close perfectly. Together, their pairing is a delight – a bittersweet and cruel one, nevertheless – and their incredible performances and cathartic climax makes The Wife a must-see.
Zoe Margolis | @girlonetrack