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Film review, by Jason Day, of The Wife, the drama about an acclaimed novelist (Jonathan Pryce) whose acceptance of a Nobel Prize for Literature heralds the uncovering a dark secret. Glenn Close plays his wife.
Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) is a venerated American author, feted as the greatest American writer of his generation. He is married to Joan (Glenn Close), who has loyally supported his career, happily blending into the background whilst being politely patronised by the intelligentsia’.
When Joe receives the Nobel Prize for Literature he is justly excited, but Joan is subdued. None the less, they travel to Sweden to collect the award with their detached, troubled son David (Max Irons).
Pursued by writer Nathanial (Christian Bale), paid to write an unauthorised biography of Joe’s life and career, Joan has to weigh up what is important to her ahead of a devastating secret being revealed.
Review, by @Reelreviewer
Yes, I’ll take care of him.
!!! Spoiler Alert !!!
Oscar buzz for the 2019 Best Actress nominees has concentrated on English actress Olivia Colman for her performance as a depressive, rabbit-loving Queen Anne in the absurdist comedy The Favourite (2018).
She has already won the BAFTA and may well scoop the much coveted Oscar, too. But there is an outsider yapping at her heels.
Step-up Glenn Close for her multi-faceted, glimmering turn as a sidelined spouse in this chilling familial drama. This marks her seventh Oscar nod. So, will Oscar finally come home with her?
Colman richly deserves to take home that sword-wielding statuette for her deeply touching turn, but of all the other nominees, Close is her nearest competitor. (Forget Lady GaGa in A Star is Born. When your ‘Fame Monster’ overwhelmed the movie, you knocked yourself out of the running).
Close excels at the small touches, expressing emotions that appear with more impact on the big screen. Passive aggression, resentment, disappointment. After all, Joan is a woman who has stood by for decades as her aloof, hyper-critical husband grand-stands and preens with fellow writing legends and strays with a multitude of younger adoring females. Joan has been content to raise a family and stand in the wings with the ubiquitous glass of warm, half empty champagne as her man is lauded for his achievements.
Close’s face is a taut rictus of unquestioning domestic goddess appeasement. When Pryce receives a phone call from Nobel informing him of his award win, he demands the call is placed on hold so his wife can listen in from the room next door. But does her presence verify the legitimacy of the win, or does it signify the power relationship between them, one of academic man on top and compliant wife underneath?
Certainly their sex life, depicted from the outset as a brutal compromise of man pleading for sex with an uninterested woman, is one of contractual specifics.
Wife relents and the husband pleases (himself) – sexual congress is depicted as an horrific badinage of tease and hurt that supports the male academic’s need for superiority over the female body.
During that Nobel-win call, Joan holds the phone receiver next to her face with pride and anguish, gripping it as a murderess would a dagger. She must want to kill her arrogant pig husband in his bed when they co-opt her (as they seem do to all academic spouses) as her husband’s PA ahead of the world’s media descending on them. When she accepts, we wonder whether this means he’ll take the Nobel medal with him to the grave in a few days’ time.
What happens to a human when they have to massage the ego of a genius who jumps up and down on their bed singing a childish song when they’ve been published, win an international award or, if would seem, any sort of commendation? Joan has coped, but what about their children?
David (Max Irons), the up and coming writer and heir apparent to the Castleman throne, probably doesn’t want to be a writer, but he seeks the affirmation of the father who has been as detached from his own life as the family members in mother Joan’s unpublished novel ’30 Years’, which forms the framing device for this movie’s narrative.
The two men chafe at each other, Joe bridling that his son wants to ‘best him’ as an author and David resentful that his father can’t give him even a token of fatherly affection. Caught in the middle, as in any family drama, is the wife/mother figure. To placate his son’s anger on arriving in Sweden, Joe offers his son two pieces of advice: drink the “cheap shit” champagne his publishers have provided in their hotel room and to go out and get laid in this most cosmopolitan of North European cities.
Pryce is on commanding form as the priggish, priapic husband who has consumed his family in the pursuit of excellence. Harry Lloyd portrays the character in his younger days and we get some background and see his neediness and also how his personality has been frequently unchallenged by a non-assertive wife. They are two sides of the same coin but Pryce is the more grandiose, a florid, false showman.
So much for the love and understanding of your paterfamilias.
But back to The Wife, used as she is to polite tyranny, living for years under the cigar-smoke and whiskey-fumed breath of male egos that must be massaged (ironic, considering she mentions Joe’s ‘famous’ back massages that relax her), gentle condescension at dinner – at a Nobel reception, a physicist forgets Joan’s name only seconds after being introduced to her. The look of resigned recognition between her and his wife, a fellow scientist, tells us that even female academics are treated as lesser beings).
How many times have these women been called ‘Jean’, or ‘Jane’, ‘June’ or ‘Jeanne’? Do they actually exist, or are they just champagne glass holding accoutrements in official photos?
The ending tells you all about how this publicly passive woman will grow. After Joe has died, Joan turns over the pages of a journal packed with entries about what she needs to do. Dismissing Nathanial, the scurrulous biographer who wants to build her up as a neglected ghost writer by snitching on a great man, she arrives at an empty page. Gently, expectantly, she rubs the paper.
This new chapter signifies the start of her own life as a writer on her own terms. She is finally reacquainted with her own voice and very soon will use it to roar, without disturbing the memory of her husband.
Is this ending, with the wife more pacific than volcanic, a cop-out? Or are we all on a more level playing field?
It’s at least more realistic. The wife’s future success as an artist is assured when she relents and accepts her late husband’s life and plays by the same rules as the men. She gives the camera a wry, content look as Concorde, that totem of progression, soars her to new possibilities.
Cast & credits
Director: Bjorn Runge. 1hr 39mins (99mins). Silver Reel/Meta Film/Anonymous Content/Tempo Productions/Embankment Films/Creative Scotland/Spark Film & TV/Film i Vast/Chimney. (15)
Producers: Jo Bamford, Claudia Bluemhuber, Rosalie Swedlin, Meta Louise Fodagler Sorensen, Piers Tempest.
Writer: Jane Anderson.
Camera: Ulf Brantas.
Music: Jocelyn Pook.
Sets: Mark Leese.
Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Max Irons, Christian Slater, Harry Lloyd, Annie Starke, Elizabeth McGovern, Karin Franz Korlof, Richard Cordery.