A lesser known quote from Maryon Pearson goes: “Behind every successful man, there stands a surprised woman.” In The Wife (2018), Glenn Close is anything but surprised as the titular spouse of an American writer Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), who wakes up to the news that his has won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
As the Nobel circus descends on the Castleman clan’s seemingly deferential Connecticut set of admirers and family and whisks them off to Stockholm, Close’s Joan is a myriad of emotions, all serenely displayed on her icon-making expressive face. At times she is demur and contemplative, and at others, cracking with bridled trauma and resentment. Jonathan Pryce plays the typical Great American Writer type and charming elder statesmen of literature, a sort of Philip Roth meets Alan Alda, still trying to seduce the impressed ingenue but now also worrying about the amount of butter in his diet. He is erring on the side of simpering in his instance that it is his wife’s support that allowed his career to flourish, and its just off-kilter enough to want to peel back the layers to discover more about this marriage.
And peel it back it does, based on the novel by Meg Wolitzer, a writer ripe for adaptation and directed by Björn Runge, the action goes back to 1950s to see the genesis of their relationship, initially as college professor and pupil. Close’s daughter Annie Maud Stark impresses as the younger Joan, determined in her pursuit of a writing career despite abrupt advice to give up her dream in a male-dominated era: “Don’t ever think you’ll make them listen” Elizabeth McGovern’s resigned author tells her – a disturbingly relevant situation that could still play out today.
At times Joe’s ego infuses the stifling family unit, irritating their overshadowed and under-worked son, David (Max Irons), and causing Joan to constantly be in the role of subjugation. The direction is unshowy, the camera at all times drawn to Close, even as the rest of the cast steps up to her mark, especially in the two-handed scenes. Christian Slater appears to put his trademark Jack Nicholson smarm to work as a ruthless writer desperate to write Joseph Castleman’s biography, letting neither fact nor fiction get in the way.
As can be expected, there is more going on under the surface than I can give away, but as events unfold and Joe gets closer and closer to receiving the Nobel Medal, now the film’s very own MacGuffin, the film remains focused on woman’s silent role in male achievements. Close says at crucial juncture “I am a kingmaker”, the real meaning of this statement still reverberating. In a climate where women seem unable make their voices heard, it’s a telling moment that will resonate.