Within the first five minutes of Björn Runge’s The Wife, we’re reminded how lucky we are that there are actors like Glenn Close in the world. Laying in bed with her husband Joe (Johanthan Pryce), Joan Castlemane (Close) is woken for some late night sex. Joe is giddy with nervousness over the impending announcements of who will be the recipients of the Nobel Prize for that year, and the sex is a good way of relieving this built up energy. Cut to early morning, as a phone cuts through the restless sleepers slumber – it’s the Swedish Academy announcing that Joe has won the Nobel Prize for literature.
As Close’s Joan sits on the other extension, we see a wealth of emotions wash over her face. Pride, confusion, excitement, depression, anxiety, stress, and joy. With only having spent mere moments with this couple, it’s through Close’s expressions we see a lifetime of memories and experiences that they have gone through together to end up at this point.
To say more about The Wife would be to spoil the intricacies of Jane Anderson’s powerful script (working from Meg Wolitzer’s book of the same name). In turn, avoid the trailer for this film at all costs as it plays out like a two minute version of the film, revealing plot points that come naturally and with great weight as the film progresses.
What there is to talk about is the revealing tête-à-tête that Pryce’s Joe and Close’s Joan have in public as Joe is wheeled out to endless social events, with equally endless nobodies fawning over him for his aptitude for creating profoundly affecting literature. Pryce is flawless as he portrays an aged writer who laps up the attention whenever he can. He feels he has been long overdue for such an accolade, and isn’t afraid to hide that through his weathered expressions. Joan watches diligently as ‘the wife’ who stands and fields questions about what it’s like to support a genius like Joe, all the while Joe interrupts the ones about whether Joan would have liked to have been a writer by saying ‘she doesn’t write’.
In the world of man, the role of women is to always support and never to take the spotlight. An exchange with a mathematician whose wife is also a mathematician highlights this toxic notion – yes, the husband knows she is more brilliant than he is, but he daren’t ever let another man know this. It’s an unspoken truth that the men never acknowledge, instead leaving harmful nuggets of pain the path of their children and their wives. Joe’s lack of support and encouragement for his son is perceived by him to be character building and helpful, but instead it’s more misguided toxic behaviour wrapped up in disguise as positive reinforcement. There is this subtle chest beating that exists in this intellectual bro club, where every man needs to belittle everyone else to reinforce his needless masculinity and show other men that, yes, indeed, he is a man.
The toll of this long marriage on Joan begins to appear at each new social event. Joan’s patience with Joe and his swanning around as a newly branded laureate begins to wear thin, with her finding solace in Christian Slater’s wannabe Joe Castlemane-biographer, Nathaniel Bone. Slater’s presence is always welcome, and for the most part he matches Close and Pryce. Bone is a snooping journalist who wants to explode Joe Castlemane’s history wide open – and Joe isn’t having a bar of it. Slater walks the thin line of being a creepy sleaze, and being a man who just wants to explore an interesting story.
It’s through Bone’s investigation and some inciting incidents that we’re given flashbacks to Joe and Joan’s early life as academics. Given The Wife is set in 1992, these flashbacks take place in the sixties, where Joe is a lecturer, and Joan is his student. The casting of Harry Lloyd as young Joe, and Annie Starke as young Joan is inspired. Lloyd plays a younger, naive version of Joe, allowing a clear through line to Johnathan Pryce’s older version of the writer. Annie Starke looks the part of a younger Glenn Close (which, of course, is helped by the fact that she’s Close’s daughter), and shows the talents of young Glenn Close as well. Here’s hoping she’s not perennially cast as younger versions of Glenn Close in everything heading forward as she definitely is a talent that deserves to grow outside of the shadow of her mother.
Which brings us back to Johnathan Pryce and Glenn Close. Pryce is stunning, with each plot reveal unveiling a new layer of his character. Pryce is a seasoned actor who has honed his craft impeccably throughout the years, and it’s a joy to see such a great talent stand up alongside and against another great talent like Glenn Close.
Close has consistently been one of the finest actors working – tracking back to her work in The Big Chill, to her iconic villain in Fatal Attraction (both of which lead to Oscar nominations), to recent genre fair like Guardians of the Galaxy and the underseen The Girl With All the Gifts, Close’s talent is undeniable. Yet, after six Oscar nominations and countless other awards, it’s with The Wife that Close delivers a career best performance.
Portraying a diligent, supportive wife appears to be a thankless task given how average the writing has been for such roles in the past. With Jane Anderson’s great script, Close is given the material she deserves, allowing her to take a deep, real character like Jane Castlemane and bring her to life. As the film comes to a close, one can’t wish that we were privy to the writing of Jane and to see the possibilities that would have come to her if her voice was given a platform.
It’s also worth taking a short moment to applaud the work of cinematographer Ulf Brantås who manages to amplify the chill and coldness of winter drenched Stockholm.
(As a sidenote, if there’s one thing from stopping The Wife from being a full five star film, it’s the unnecessary final shot that appears to exist to remind viewers one last time that Concordes used to exist as a form of travel.)
The Wife comes at a vital point in the #MeToo era. It portrays a story that may feel all too familiar to women working from the sixties onwards, trying to prove themselves in male driven fields and continually being denied a way forward because of their gender (also see: RBG for how difficult it was for such a great like Ruth Bader Ginsburg to find a footing in a world driven by men). It shows what happens when women are denied a voice or a career simply because they are women. Sexism is strong, and sexism is inherent in life, work, marriages, and motherhood. This is a vital, unmissable, powerful film. Go for Glenn Close, stick around for the story that won’t leave your mind.
Director: Björn Runge
Cast: Glenn Close, Johnathan Pryce, Annie Starke
Writer: Jane Anderson (based on the novel “The Wife” by Meg Wolitzer)