Film Review: The Wife (2018) DIR. Björn Runge
By Belle McIntyre
The opening scene is an absolutely charming one in the bedroom of a middle-aged couple, who seem remarkably comfortable with one another. He is in crisis and acting sort of like a jerk and she takes it in stride and gets him through the moment with grace and affection. The moment ends with a phone call from Stockholm, Sweden informing the husband, Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) that he has won the Nobel Prize for fiction. This prompts an exuberant happy dance on the bed with his wife Joan (Glenn Close). The film moves both forward and backward from this moment as they prepare for and attend the awards ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden. This storyline is intercut with flashbacks to their early time together when she was a promising creative writing student at Smith College in the 1950’s and Joel Castleman was her writing professor. The mentoring between the married professor and his talented protege speedily turned into an affair and eventually marriage. Joe has become a lionized, much-loved, prolific novelist and Joan has given up her own writing to help Joe with his. Ironically, we hear her use the same phrases to Joe that he used with his students. So, in some ways, the roles have reversed. Or so it seems…..
Based on the novel of the same name by Meg Wolitzer, the story unfolds at a leisurely pace, and introduces the family of the Castleman’s. They have a pregnant daughter and a sullen son, David (Max Irons) who is also a writer and labors under the shadow of his famous and successful father, who largely ignores him. This is the first sign of cracks in the family unit. As the trip to Stockhom gets closer and Joe is getting more pumped up with accolades, Joan seems to be becoming less enthusiastic and distant from Joe. The whole time, Joe is lavishing praise and appreciation on her for her wifely support and inspiration, she is chafing under the attention. She even goes so far as to ask him to stop doing it as she does not appreciate the spotlight. The strangeness of her reaction, when the reason for it is revealed, is almost Shakespearean in its tragedy.
It is an Iago-like figure which brings things to a head and forces the family to come to a reckoning with the dark, hidden truth. That prod into the established image of the Castleman family comes in the form of another writer, Nathan Bone (Christian Slater). Played to sleazy perfection, Nathan is desperate to write Joe Castleman’s biography and is constantly trailing the family, including flying on the same plane to Stockholm. He would like Joe’s blessing and cooperation, but Joe has emphatically refused repeatedly. His relentless stalking and prying in Stockholm is beginning to bear fruit and to squeeze some juicy tidbits out of David and Joan as he takes advantage of their grievances with the arrogant, philandering Joe, by feigning sympathy and egging them on to admit things that they had not even admitted to themselves. The compromises that Joan has chosen to make to favor her husband and the complicity between them both over their thirty years together are too consequential to be undone at this point. But, Joan has hit the wall and is no longer willing to play the part.
Here is what is really interesting about the direction and the acting. As much drama as there is, there is little scenery-chewing except from Joe. Mostly, it is slow burns. Glenn Close is so elegant and restrained and her mounting resentment toward her husband’s selfishness, infidelities and fecklessness is tempered by their shared life together which has been fueled by genuine love and bonded by years of habit. But she is not a vengeful woman. She is a private person and her solution will be private. She owns her part in the secret which they have perpetrated together. It is a well-wrought story and a thoroughly involving film.