Title: The Wife
Country: UK, Sweden, USA
Director: Björn Runge
Screenplay: Jane Anderson
based on the novel by Meg Wolitzer
Music: Jocelyn Pook
Cinematography: Ulf Bratås
Karin Franz Körlof
Alix Within Regan
“Don’t peg me as a long-suffering, tormented wife” (paraphrasing here), says Joan (Close), the spouse of the newly announced Nobel laureate in literature, American writer Joseph Castleman (Pryce), to intending biographer Nathaniel Bone (Slater), who repeatedly abases himself in hope for Joseph’s unforthcoming permission to write about his extraordinary life. Well, Joan is not Joseph’s victim, if anything, she is a victim of her own poor judgement, precisely because it always takes two to tango, the couple’s ghostwriting arrangement is a mutual decision at any rate, which gives Joan the short end of the stick, but that is the deal she must countenance in the first place, a similar plot also takes the center stage in Wash Westmoreland’s COLETTE (2018), but the fictitious Joan Castleman is quite a different kettle of blue-stocking fish from the free-spirited Colette, who was indeed nominated for Nobel Prize in Literature.
In Swedish director Björn Runge’s THE WIFE, his first English language movie, which very likely will accord Glenn Close a coveted Oscar win for her seventh attempt, the crux is not connubial deception or victimization, but a profound feeling of regret and ire crystallizes through the encroachment of chronic disappointment. For the talented but reactive Joan, she only goes on board with the bargain as a last resort to save their relationship, as Joseph sends his ultimatum after painfully learning that he doesn’t have “that magic touch”, in other words, Joan makes a sacrifice out of love, because one thing is for sure, Joseph can never leave her once he takes all the credits of her creation.
Had Joseph not been such a hardened skirt-chaser or hubristic blabber, their union would work well, Joan has already achieved what she could imagine at then, in the outsider’s eyes, a magnificently supportive wife with a seemingly happy family, only the good tidings of the Nobel Prize sets a time-bomb ticking when she has to inure the whole junket with Joseph and his blatant blarney to thank her in public (twice shown, one is in front of their family and friends, another is in the awards ceremony, the contents seldom vary, betraying what kind of a writer Joseph actually is!), the irony is that every word he utters is true, only no one will believe that.
Two influences also obliquely contribute to Joan’s disintegration, an internal one is the tension between Joseph and their son David (Irons), who is a novice in writing and too eager to earn recognition from his venerated father (a rather blasé subplot that threats to eyebrow-raising), and the external one is from the aforementioned Mr. Bone, who cunningly fishes for any gesture of conformation from a collected but ambivalent Joan, before dumping all the muckraking on a testy David, to further muddy the waters.
Vibrant with seething emotion, Glenn Close is quietly pervasive in every single frame, especially when she is on the sidelines, wordless, motionless, yet her visage alone can express the whole nine yard of a mood swing from germination to termination, that ineluctably spurs Joan into a breaking point, and when it’s time to lay her cards on the table, her fiery outpourings are superbly fine-tuned to an apposite caliber that rightly hits every mark without going overboard. Granted, Jonathan Pryce is also pluckily commendable as a force of counterpoise, his Joseph is a much flawed, unlovable character, but Pryce still can elicit a vague semblance of redeeming quality during his final scenes. Things are less propitious in the flashback parts, young Joan is played by Close’s own daughter Annie Starke, who is slightly stilted, but a fickle-looking, namby-pamby Harry Lloyd fails majestically to make Joseph a convincing hot asset that is able to sweep Joan off her feet readily, ok, we must buy that love is indeed blind.
Runge’s prosaic stock-in-trade notwithstanding, THE WIFE is very mediocre if not for the two leads’ compelling central performances, Jane Anderson’s all-around and insightful script (especially the finish touch on the plane home), and its opportune message of a woman’s belated awakening in an era when her true self worth will not be buried under any patriarchal pressure and bias, that bodes well for Ms. Close to pull a victory a là Julianne Moore in STILL ALICE (2014), also to cross an item off on many folk’s bucket lists.