The Wife (2017)
The Wife (2017) could be described as just another midlife self-discovery film, although with more originality and powerful acting than many. It can also be seen as a feminist essay about being true to oneself, a story of fabricated prestige in the literary world, and a tale of arrogant deceit that holds a marriage together. It’s bigger triumph, however, lies in the way it blends all of these into a tense black comedic drama based on the extraordinary acting power of the duo Glen Close and Jonathan Price.
The core plot is simple: a long-term marriage full of simmering tensions is brought to the boil when the husband wins the Nobel Prize for literature while ‘the wife’ looks on in smiling silence. Professor Joe Castleman has become accustomed to being feted for his literary greatness and has even been described as a reinventor of the novel form. The opening scenes are emotionally supercharged: a phone call from Norway in the middle of the night, joyful close-ups on Joe and Joan hearing the news, each processing it in completely different terms. Joe’s arrogance is elevated by the news, while Joan’s tolerance for his deceit, philandering, and belittling her as ‘the wife who does not write’ inches closer to breaking point.
The news of his Prize triggers interest from a persistent freelance biographer who begins asking questions about Joan’s own early writing career and the authorship of her husband’s work. Marital tensions and professional conceits intersect and escalate as they approach the Nobel Prize ceremony, with their secret dangerously close to becoming public. Framed as a domestic relationships drama, the narrative moves slowly in a dialogue-rich film that records the personal journey of two intelligent and articulate people travelling in different directions.
So much can be conveyed through a husband’s use of the phrase “The Wife”. It might be a derisive avatar or a cartoonish nag, but not a respected equal. It is at this level that The Wife exerts its power to show how patriarchy can entrap a willing victim until its innate fragility is exposed. Yet a simple exit from the marriage is not easy, as Joe and Joan really love each other. Too many dramas immerse such themes in clichés and hyperbole, but a tour de force performance by Glen Close takes this one to a different level.
Excellent filming, a clever script, uncluttered editing, and a nomination-worthy performance by Close gives this film a clear voice for the demographic it addresses. The feminist discourse for older women speaks in a different filmic language than for others, so this is not a film for all. But its laser-precise message is targeted at everyone.
2018 Sydney Film Festival
Director: Bjórn Runge
Stars: Clen Close, Jonathan Price, Max Irons, Elizabeth McGovern