The Wife (2018)
Written by Jane Anderson
Directed by Bjorn Runge
Elderly writer Joseph Castleman receives the call many artists dream about. He is being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, being told that he has made a significant contribution to the realm of writing in ways that will resound for generations beyond. His ever-loyal wife Joan listens on the phone extension and then prepares to care for and navigate her husband through the gauntlet of press and meetings to come. There is a secret behind her attentiveness to Joseph. They travel with their adult son to Stockholm where a week of formalities follows related to the prize. Tensions build when Nathaniel Bone, a journalist shows up and tells Joan he plans on writing an expose about Castleman, that he knows how Joan is tied to his success that he wants her to be the one to come forward first, on the record.
The entire weight of this movie rests on the shoulders of Glenn Close’s performance. Almost every other single element from cinematography to music to the other actors fall far short of the bar set by Close. The plot would completely collapse from some of the more ludicrous turns, but our main actress keeps us compelled and interested. Close can convey explosive anger that melts into broken tears and vice versa so fluidly and organically. The story of Joan is something Close, as a great actress, channels and empathizes. That doesn’t mean she presents Joan as a blameless angel. The final scene of the film asks us to consider a more complicated angle, referring back to her answer when questioned, “And what do you do?” Her response: “I am a kingmaker.”
Some flashbacks have two different actors starring as Joan and Joseph and these scenes only work to underscore how much better Close is. These two actors never met with Close and Jonathan Pryce (who plays the modern day Castleman) or watched any of their performances. If it weren’t made clear that these are the same characters, you wouldn’t know it. The mannerisms, accents, every single subtle detail doesn’t track with what the older performers are doing. The flashbacks end up playing like a cheaper, less intelligent story running parallel to the story unfolding at the Nobel ceremony.
It’s a shame that The Wife ends up as such a weak film because it’s subject matter is profoundly important. There is a proposition that we’re going to examine the nature of The Great Man as a literary figure and the way female voices were silenced for generations in the circles of publishing. Elizabeth McGovern makes a cameo as a returning alumnus to Joan’s college who advises her to stay out of writing because she’ll be invisible. Later, when we see Joan working as a secretary at a publishing house, the sexism is played up to the point of farce, almost recalling Anchorman. Because we don’t see sexism as a realistic, insidious systemic practice, portraying it so ludicrously only undercuts what could be a relevant film.
The Wife is a film that will exist better in its original novel form or an idea to think about. The final product here is messy and uneven, listless in the way it rolls out its uninteresting flashbacks when all we want to see is Glenn Close acting and reacting to events happening around her. The conclusion feels way too convenient and withholds a more ambiguous ending that could aid the audience in having a more powerful conversation after the credits roll.
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