Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Wife: A Review (Review #1195)


It was not meant to be.

The Wife may be remembered as the film that earned Glenn Close her seventh Oscar nomination, giving her the dubious honor of being the most nominated actress yet to win an Oscar as of this writing. The Wife is a showcase for Close's extraordinary talent and deserves better than just being a footnote to her also-ran record.

Joan Castleman (Close) has been with her husband, celebrated author Joseph (Jonathan Pryce) for thirty-plus years. One night, a hoped-for call comes in: Joseph has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. While both are elated, Joan's elation is mixed with slowly-building regret and even anger.

As the Castlemans, along with their son David (Max Irons) go to Stockholm to accept the prize, they are also joined by Nathanial Bone (Christian Slater). He, like David, has not had success as a writer. Nathanial wants to write Joseph's biography, which Joseph and Joan won't agree to, especially since both do not want Joseph's numerous affairs exposed.

That's not the only thing neither wants exposed. The Wife both in present-time and flashbacks to 1958 when writing student Joan Archer (Annie Stark) and her married professor Joseph Castleman (Harry Lloyd) met and had an affair slowly reveals that it was Joan, not Joseph, who wrote the novels. Bone suspects as much but cannot prove it, with Joan not giving an inch. She, however, grows to no longer be willing to go along with things, especially after Joseph comes close to yet another infidelity in Stockholm.

Things ultimately explode the night of the Nobel Prize ceremony, where David confronts his parents about Bone's contentions and Joseph's praising of Joan rub salt on the wound. Joan finally lets out her decades of frustration, and in their confrontation Joseph suffers a heart attack. Flying back to America, the Widow Castleman tells Nathanail if he publishes his suspicions, she will sue. She also tells David that she will tell all to him and his sister, who has just given birth.

Image result for the wife movieThe Wife answers a critical question that the viewer has: why would Joan start, continue and go along with this subterfuge for decades? It begins with a small but critical role for Elizabeth McGovern as Elaine Mozell, the rare female author from the college where Joseph teaches. Despite Joan's talent, 'a writer needs to be read', and Elaine points out that the publishers, the critics and reviewers, the editors and agents are all men. As such, Joan might get published but would be ignored by both the influence-makers and the general public.

This is also compounded by Joan's own conflicting emotions: guilt over the affair that cost Joseph's first marriage and separation from his other daughter, the desire to be read even if through a front, the manipulation from Joseph that he was a form of inspiration to her work and perhaps just the knowledge that once the deception started, they were tied to it.

The Wife does not reveal this instantly, but takes its time to build up to the surprise carefully in Jane Anderson's adaptation of Meg Wolitzer's novel. Once we know the truth, or at least begin suspecting it, we see how Joan starts taking stock of things. She sees that she took the avenues available to her, but that the end result has been a fraud to so many, not just the readers but her own children.

We have an upending of the traditional idea of 'the wife' as supportive and loyal to her husband and a rebuke to the 'behind every great man there is a great woman' notion. The personal and professional sacrifices Joan makes drives The Wife to being a strong portrait of a woman.

Close is absolutely brilliant in the film, communicating so much with a glance, a look, a change in her voice. In her calm denial of Bone's allegations, in her sympathetic support for David, and finally in her quiet yet strong rage at essentially being mocked (intentionally or not) by Joseph at his Nobel speech, Close is compelling, sympathetic, heartbreaking and in her own way triumphant.

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As much as The Wife is Close's show, director Bjorn L. Runge also got strong performances from the rest of his cast. Jonathan Pryce was excellent as Joseph, his mix of obliviousness and self-righteousness making Joseph into an almost sympathetic villain. He didn't play Joseph as a monster, but as a man of occasional decency who was too wrapped up in himself to accept the damage he did. Slater is a surprise in his small role as the sleazy biographer, more than holding his own against Close, with whom he spends the bulk of his screen-time. In his efforts to shake the truth out of her, Slater is a menace without being menacing.

Irons could have been the weak point, but he rises above the cliche of 'the angry son who couldn't measure up to his father'. The role would be the limiting thing for him because it is a cliche, but Irons has a strong moment in the end when confronting both his parents, the decades of frustration about  his stalled career and disconnection from his parents finally released.

It's a pity The Wife got only a limited run, for it's a film that should be widely seen. It's also a pity that Close lost again, for The Wife would have been a strong performance to win regardless of Close's dismal Oscar record.

This is not the place to say whether she should have won for The Wife or whether The Wife is her best performance ever. I have found that Glenn Close rarely if ever gives a bad performance.  This is the place to say that The Wife is a strong film, well-acted with a story perhaps more relevant today given the climate.


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