Helen Tope reviews The Wife, showing at Plymouth Arts Centre until this Thursday (limited tickets available here).
Based on the novel by Meg Wolitzer, The Wife tells the story of Joe and Joan Castleman. Joe, a writer of international standing, has been notified that he was won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The film sees the couple travel to Sweden for the ceremony. Pursued by would-be biographer, Nathaniel Bone, he befriends a lonely and isolated Joan. They talk freely. Nathaniel mentions that in his research on Joe’s work, he has found Joan’s creative writing from her university days. Bearing a striking resemblance to her husband’s prose, Nathaniel suggests the novels being honoured are the work of more than one hand.
The Wife is a film that works by not only subverting our expectations, but dismantling them, one by one. We meet Joe and Joan 40 years into their marriage – they are about to become grandparents for the first time. They seem to have it all: fame, prestige and a fabulous beachside home. But we quickly learn that Joe (played by Jonathan Pryce) has not always been faithful – their marriage is, while not built on convenience, certainly staged around the management of Joe’s career. Everything is done for his ease and benefit. It plays on the popular concept of the ‘literary genius’ – white, male and middle-aged. Castleman has the back catalogue and the ego to match. The Nobel Prize feels not so much like a wonderful tribute, but a foregone conclusion.
Joan is, on paper, the long-suffering wife. Deferring her wants and needs to those of her husband; Joan calls herself a ‘king-maker’ and that is a fair assessment of her life’s work. To emerge from obscurity to become a literary giant doesn’t just take talent – it requires a support network of iron-clad sensibility.
Played by Glenn Close, Joan is the consummate wife – she carries Joe’s coat as they are introduced to the Nobel Committee, she sets the timer on his watch so he doesn’t forget his pills. She is a woman familiar to us; we see her on the news, walking behind a noted politician, artist or sportsman. The smile is fixed, the gaze is straight ahead, but not focused on anything in particular. The wardrobe is perfectly judged – elegant without drawing too much attention. We know where our attention should be placed, but there is a certain fascination in watching these women. How many sacrifices have they made to get where they are? What are they thinking, as their partner soaks up all the glory?
The Wife goes some way to answer that question. Close does rage better than any other actress of her generation, and the film examines how anger and despair can get sublimated for a ‘greater good’. In aligning herself to this wifely role, Joan has no option but to play along with the facade she has created. She watches in silence, as Joe eyes up another conquest. This time, it is the pretty Nobel photographer (Kann Franz Korlof) capturing key moments of their visit.
But as Joe is wrapped up in the preparations for the Nobel ceremony, Joan finds herself alone, with time to think. In flashback, we meet Joe and Joan at the start of their relationship. Joe is a Professor at the prestigious Smith College, and Joan is one of his students. Again, our assumptions are challenged as we learn that Joe is already married when they meet. Joan pursues him, and wins the man. He loses his job, and they move to a tiny apartment in New York. Their new relationship is at breaking point, as Joe struggles to get a foothold in the literary world. Joan works in a publishing house, and overhears the agents discuss their need for a great Jewish writer – every other house has one. Joan seizes the opportunity – and Joe gets his big break.
While Joan is instrumental in the crafting of Joe’s early career, she finds herself surplus to requirements in Sweden. In talking to Nathaniel Bone (a great performance from Christian Slater), she finds a part of herself long forgotten. They flirt – quite brilliantly – and as Joan dodges Nathaniel’s implication about joint authorship, she goes back to Joe with one question – should she make a change before it’s too late?
Despite being a strong ensemble piece, The Wife hangs on the efforts of its two leads. With substantial experience across every medium to back them up, Close and Pryce offer up a master-class in how to act on-screen. They are so evenly-matched, that when they argue, it is done with the precision of prize-fighters. No gesture or reaction is overplayed. Every emotion is cropped to fit within the confines of the camera frame. The release of this film, made in 2017, has been delayed to allow Glenn Close a chance at Oscar nomination, and it’s definitely the right call. A good film, but a great performance from Close, it elevates The Wife to another level.
The film works best as a commentary on the price paid by artists and the people around them. We see Joe’s line of books, neatly stacked in his hotel room as a physical representation of his achievement. But the hours sat at a typewriter; the sacrifices made in family life and at personal cost – that is the real summation of what it takes to be a writer. The Wife looks at how a legacy is created – built on fractured relationships, the work stands, but the name and the man are on far shakier ground.
The Wife is a brilliant study of ambition, talent and the ego needed to drive them forward. A film that offers up real emotional complexity, the revelation is in what is not being said. Read between the lines, and you discover that the end is just the beginning.