The Wife

August 2, 2018
All smiles. Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce in 'The WIfe'

What becomes of that comfortable old cliché: “Behind every great man there’s a great woman” in the #MeToo era? Surely it was always a euphemistic way of saying: “Behind every self-important male there’s a self-effacing female.” Nowadays to be politically correct we might have to say: “Behind every great LGBTQIA there’s a great LGBTQIA” – which loses something in translation.

The Wife is an old-fashioned story that looks at a heroic, long-suffering woman married to an insecure, self-obsessed man. Joe Castleman is a famous novelist at the apex of his career. Joan Castleman is the wife that straightens Joe’s tie, makes sure he takes his pills, and reassures him about his genius.

In the wrong hands this might have been a soap opera but director, Björn Runge and scriptwriter, Jane Anderson, have made the characters three-dimensional enough to ride out the limitations of the plot. The Wife gains immeasurably from the lead performances of Glenn Close, in a career-defining role, and British stalwart, Jonathan Pryce.

None of the secondary characters are half so convincing, with the exception of Christian Slater as Nathaniel Bone, a sleazebag journalist who will be as obsequious as necessary to dig up the dirt on his subject. Less satisfactory is Max Irons as the Castlemans’ son, David, who wants to be a writer himself but acts like a spoiled, pouting teenybopper. As David is obviously in his 30s this sulkiness feels like a serious case of arrested development. Judging by current literary mores he should have a great career as a novelist.

The story begins with Joan and Joe waking from a restless night’s sleep, unsettled by the knowledge that he has been tipped to win this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. When the call from Sweden arrives it’s the cue for juvenile celebrations, jumping up and down on the bed. As we’ll see in flashbacks to the early days of their relationship, this is just what happened when Joe’s first novel was accepted for publication.

It’s Joe’s moment of triumph and he basks in the glory, first at a party given for friends, then in Stockholm, where they travel, with David, for the presentation ceremonies.

It takes time for us to get to grips with Joe’s personality. On the surface he’s full of love and respect for his wife whom he praises on every public occasion. In private he tells her they’re a team, and the award belongs to both of them. This effusiveness causes Joan no end of embarrassment. We feel at first that it’s only a temperamental quirk, as if she’s one of those heroic but stoic types who says: “I was only doing my job”.

Gradually we realise that Joe’s public displays of affection are partly inspired by a long history of philandering. Yet his full burden of guilt towards Joan runs much deeper, going right to the heart of his literary achievements. The story emerges only in flashbacks as we watch the first hints of romance between the young Joe (Harry Lloyd), a dynamic professor of literature, and his star pupil, Joan (played by Glenn Close’s real-life daughter, Annie Starke).

Joe leaves his first wife and child for Joan, and the duo settle into a love match fired by their mutual passion for writing. It’s obvious that Joan has all the talent, but in the late 1950s – early 1960s, there’s little room for female authors. She accepts the status quo and subordinates her own literary ambitions to those of her husband.

Forty years later this partnership – its true scope revealed by degrees as the film progresses – has become a psychological problem for Joan that she can barely admit, even to herself. So much of her life has been spent playing the dutiful spouse, catering for Joe’s ego and forgiving his failings, that she can’t let go of these roles, which have become part of her identity.

Despite everything, she loves Joe and he loves her. They have two grown-up children and a comfortable life. Does she need to be recognised for the full extent of her contribution to her husband’s success, when such recognition would probably destroy his reputation?

The problems come to a head in Stockholm, when Joan is expected to go shopping while Joe mixes it with the other Nobel laureates. Cornered by Nathaniel, who turns on the charm and flattery, she resists his invitations to reveal the truth behind her marriage. With Joe, who has been behaving badly again, it’s not so easy to keep up the façade.

It’s the conflicted nature of Close and Pryce’s characters, fired by mutual love and resentment, that makes The Wife so compelling. Beneath the easy flow of dialogue, volcanic emotions are stirring. At the pinnacle of a life’s work they look down into the darkness. Some have tried to portray this film as a feminist statement but it’s more like a human tragedy in which love has made an uneasy accommodation with society and its prejudices. The Japanese have terms for this: ninjo being one’s own feelings, giri being those of society. In choosing one side unequivocally over the other there is always a price to be paid.

The Wife
Directed by Björn Runge
Written by Jane Anderson, after a novel by Meg Wolitzer
Starring Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Christian Slater, Max Irons, Annie Starke, Harry Lloyd, Karin Franz Korlof
Sweden/USA/UK, rated M, 100 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 4 August, 2018