The Wife is a stagey but gripping drama featuring a superb performance from Glenn Close. Unmissable for this alone.
The Wife stayed with me long after I left the cinema. It set me thinking about a whole heap of stuff: long-term spousal relationships, narcissism and its costs, myths surrounding the Great Artist, canonised vs popular literature, historical sexism in the publishing industry. I also found myself pondering how I would assess the film. It’s a slow mover, rather stagey and dialogue heavy. There are some obvious flaws. And yet, I’d found it as gripping as any thriller. And that’s largely down to the only truly extraordinary element of the film – Glenn Close’s superb lead performance.
She plays Joan, the wife of the film’s title. In the opening scenes, Joan and her acclaimed novelist husband Joe (Jonathan Pryce) are in bed anxiously awaiting news from Sweden on whether he has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The phone rings and the news is good. They jump up and down on the bed in elation, like a couple of kids.
They’re still having fun together then, they enjoy the trappings of Joe’s career success, and Joan is clearly thrilled at her husband receiving the ultimate accolade. From all appearances theirs is a successful marriage that has stood the test of time like a good wine. O how deceptive appearances can be…even, sometimes, for those doing the deceiving.
Clues that something is not right are suggested in Joan’s demeanour. In public, she’s charming, diplomatic, articulate and witty, the perfect wife to the Great Writer. In private, she’s his rock, pandering to his outsized ego and deflating it when necessary, organising his medications, taking care of the practical stuff. But there’s an underlying tightness to her expression, a sense that she’s presenting a false face to the world, suppressing something.
There’s a long-suffering air about her when she notes Joe eyeing off the attractive young photographer assigned to him. And you wonder why at the functions preceding the Nobel Prize presentations she seems so ill-at-ease – irritated, in fact – at his extravagant public praise of her. Or is her reaction more to do with his referring to her as his non-writing wife?
Through flashback, we learn that as a college student Joan had been identified by her dashing young professor, Joe, as an aspiring writer of promise. They fall in love, Joe leaves his wife and child for Joan, they have kids of their own, dot dot dot.
Close is transfixing as she offers us glimpses into her character, peeling back layer after tantalising layer. We divine the presence of inner conflict and deep unease as much through her masterful use of facial language and vocal tone as her words. You dare not take your eyes off her for fear of missing something vital.
The puzzle begins to come together when Joan takes a day off to look around Stockholm by herself prior to the Nobel Prize presentations, and is persuaded by journo Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater – terrif) to join him for drinks at a local bar. Bone is hoping to write Joe’s biography and believes he is on to a sensational scoop. The parry and thrust of his conversation with Joan is brilliantly managed – a case of great direction, writing and acting working in perfect sync. Indeed, this outstanding scene is the highlight of the movie, and the conversation with Bone the catalyst that sets Joan back on her own course after a lifetime of playing second fiddle to her narcissistic husband.
Less successful is the characterisation of Joe, which gets perilously close to caricature (Jonathan Pryce does a good job in the role, considering). Also, some of the writing is ham-fisted – Joe’s testy relationship with his moping writer son David (Max Irons) is a case in point, as is the over-amped satirising of the male-dominant publishing industry of the 50s/60s. And the resolution of the drama is a bit easy, a bit neat.
These should be seen as relatively minor gripes. The Wife is a good movie, not a great one, but Glenn Close’s subtle virtuoso depiction of her richly complex character renders it unmissable.
Movie Website: https://www.iconmovies.com.au/movies/the-wife
The Wife features: Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Christian Slater, Max Irons, Elizabeth McGovern
Director: Björn Runge
Writer: Jane Anderson (screenplay), based on the novel “The Wife” by Meg Wolitzer
Runtime: 100 min
Australian release date: The Wife at Luna Cinema, Leederville from August 2, 2018
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