The family that writes together fights together in A-list acting display
The Wife (2018)
Directed by Björn Runge
Cast: Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Christian Slater
They say that, “behind every great man there is a great woman.” That axiom gets taken apart like a Swiss watch and examined under the loupe in the high-class literary drama/handcrafted Oscar bait The Wife.
They also say (they talk a lot, they do) you should always “lead with your strengths.” And The Wife’s strengths are front-loaded, right there above the title on the poster: the cast, starting with six-time Academy Award nominee Glenn Close. Close plays Joan Castleman, the patient and well-composed spouse to celebrated literary icon Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce). One morning, bright and early, the longtime couple are woken up by a phone call from Sweden. Seems that Joe has won this year’s Nobel Prize for literature, a testament to all that he’s done over his career to evolve the novelistic form.
Joan and Joe prepare for the long plane flight to Stockholm to attend the ceremony. Making the trip with them is their son David (Max Irons, son of Jeremy Irons—who, oddly enough, was not cast as his father here). David is an aspiring writer in his own stead, but finds himself withering under the bright light of his father’s success. He tags along, sulking in the background and hoping for a crumb of praise from his father concerning his latest short story. Joan, for her part, seems distracted on the journey. Everyone’s proud of Joe, but seems to be harboring some deep and complicated emotions about the whole affair. Can’t they just be happy for the guy? I mean, it is the Nobel Prize.
On the flight over to Europe, the family bumps into up-and-coming writer Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater). Bone has been jockeying for years to pen a definitive biography of the illustrious Mr. Castleman. He’s now secured a contract from a publisher and is doing his best to sidle up to the Castlemans on the eve of their big night. Joan is clearly uninterested in Bone, and Joe rebuffs him with some less than kind words.
As the ceremony in Stockholm looms, Joan begins to question some of the decisions she has made over the course of her life. The film drifts back to the couple’s early years. In the late ’50s, Joan was a ponytailed coed dreaming of becoming a writer (played by Annie Starke, who is Close’s daughter). Joe was an attractive young creative writing professor (played by Harry Lloyd), his classes stuffed—Indiana Jones-style—with dreamy-eyed female admirers. Despite the fact that Joe was married at the time, he began an affair with the smart and attractive Joan. This more or less laid out the roadmap for their future relationship. Joan gave up her dreams to become the stay-at-home wife of a literary superstar, and Joe indulged his adulterous urges with whatever young student came along. As Nathanial Bone puts it, it’s a cliché story. And it’s not the story he’s interested in writing. He’s digging for something deeper, hinting that it’s not just a string of affairs that has got the Castleman family so on edge these days.
The Wife hews closely to its source material, Meg Wolitzer’s novel of the same name. There aren’t a lot of layers to the narrative, beyond the “big secret” it keeps relatively close to its vest. It’s not a terribly hard to decipher secret and is more or less spilled about halfway through the film, leaving the characters to deal with its repercussions in their various ways. The majority of this burden falls, of course, to Close and Pryce, who are opposite one another in nearly every scene. Close is, expectedly, rock solid. She gives her character’s role of the beleaguered yet supportive wife a great deal of emotional depth. Love, hate, jealousy and disappointment flash across her face in near-equal measure. This isn’t simply the story of a woman summoning up the courage to leave her philandering husband. It’s more complex than that. After 40 years of marriage the things you love about your spouse and the things you hate about them are more or less intertwined. Pryce also does his character justice, even though Joe is a bit more unrepentant about his own failings. Their back-and-forth banter feels realistic and lived-in, building to some more explosive, actor-intensive exchanges later on in the film. Slater acquits himself well too, situated between powerhouses Close and Pryce, although his role amounts to little more than a plus-sized cameo.
Make no mistake about it, The Wife is Close’s film from start to finish, an Oscar-eyeing actor’s showcase for the much-loved performer (who has yet to actually secure one of those gold statues). Everyone else on screen is basically just a prop for her to play with. And though this results in a sometimes thin scenario—a couple good laughs, some simmering tensions, an occasionally impudent skewing of literary and academic society, wrapped up by a solid screaming match at the end—there’s no denying Close’s command of the screen and of her craft.