Review: Glenn Close Delivers a Powerful, Quiet Turn in The Wife.
Four out of five Nobel Prizes for Literature.
Wives in fiction are fascinating to examine, because too often they fall into set tropes. There’s the supportive wife, the nag who never lets the manchild have any fun, the put-upon wife of the brooding anti-hero that the fandom hates, the cheater and bad wife… and those narratives are often focused on men. We get some standouts, but for the most part our culture loves to examine the male protagonist and leave his wife to be a two-dimensional trope who falls into the same tired role, year after year and film after film.
Having cut some of my feminist media criticism teeth on examining wife roles in media like Breaking Bad, perhaps this is why The Wife struck me as a powerful examination of the wife role in media, while also being a powerful condemnation of the way women in real life will cut themselves down to support powerful husbands. As Joan Castleman, the woman at the heart of the film, Glenn Close delivers a powerhouse performance that defies tropes, defies boxing in, and becomes all too real as a result. The film on the whole is an exquisite exercise in writing, direction, and acting, but without Close the whole thing might lack the same power.
The film centers on Joan, who’s husband Joe (Jonathan Pryce) has just received the Nobel Prize in Literature. They, along with their son David (Max Irons) and trailed by would-be biographer Nathaniel (Christian Slater), travel to Stockholm, where old tensions and resentments begin to emerge. The film also explores how Joan and Joe met and how Joe first became published. If you were to guess that Joan had a hand in that, you would be very correct.
The trailer spoils that Joan has a writer’s touch, but has stopped writing in favor of supporting her husband. Throughout the film, Joan is every inch the perfect wife. She fusses over Joe’s appearance, takes his coat and sets out his pills, and stands dutifully by his side at every event. She apologizes for Joe’s rudeness towards Nathaniel, and mediates fights between father and son. Close doesn’t add melodrama to these actions, and what breaks one’s heart watching is that you probably know a woman just like her.
Close’s performance is nothing short of outstanding. She’s not showy, and yet her performance, highlighted by the directorial choices of Björn Runge, dominates the film. She is a slow burn, and you can feel the weight of the years of life with Joe building up. If you doubted her performance when she won at the Golden Globes for the film, you can strike those doubts from the record. She has every inch earned her award and her likely Oscar nomination.
Also a revelation is Annie Starke, Close’s real life daughter, who plays the younger version of Joan. A quiet college student, Starke channels her mother’s silence to portray a pitch perfect younger version of the character. They flow seamlessly together, and Starke’s eyes and body language convey so much. I personally look forward to seeing Starke’s career go further after this film, and found her to truly strengthen the film by eschewing a showy performance in favor of a restrained turn that fits perfectly with Close’s performance.
Slater and Pryce both give strong supporting turns. Pryce is a bit more domineering and shows off, but that fits the role of blustering Joe. His portrayal of a man who feels emasculated by age is sharp, in turns embarrassing and enraging to watch. Slater’s turn as a writer with interest in revealing Joe’s secrets is not showy at all. It’s very real, and a lengthy conversation with Joan in which he covers a lot of exposition about her relationship never comes off as him condescending towards her. The only weaker spot is Irons as David, but his role demands petulance and a sort of frozen adolescence despite his age, so a second watch might make his performance stand out more.
The film’s true stars are both Close and the screenplay. The screenplay avoids poetic, flowery declarations in favor of realistic dialogue. Rather than use voiceover, similar to the first person narration from the Meg Wolitzer novel it is based on, the film allows Close’s work and context clues to carry what the audience should feel. The little indignities Joan suffers, from being passively told that they can arrange shopping trips for her as her husband is fawned over to being introduced solely as “the wife” to the other male laureates, are conveyed through Close’s performance and a cultural understanding of what is occurring her.
Joan is a woman who is smart, eloquent, and who as we see in the flashbacks has talent. And yet, she is carrying champagne flutes around at a party in her husband’s honor. It was impossible to watch this film following Close’s win and not think of the actress’s victory speech, in which she said:
“To play a character who is so internal, I’m thinking of my mom who really sublimated herself to my father her whole life. And in her 80s she said to me, “I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything.”And it was so not right. And I feel like what I’ve learned from this whole experience is, women, we’re nurturers, that’s what’s expected of us. We have our children, we have our husbands if we’re lucky enough, and our partners. But we have to find personal fulfillment. We have to follow our dreams. We have to say, “I can do that, and I should be allowed to do that.”
The ending of the film could either be seen as a pitch perfect note or overly maudlin, but overall the film is a stellar character study. Close’s work should put her at the front of the Oscar race, and shakes up the idea of the wife trope. At one point in the film, Joan asks that she not be painted as a victim. With the character work done by the creative team and brought to life by Close, it is impossible to see her as anything but a fully realized woman and character. She is more than a victim while remaining tragic, which is perhaps the best handling of her character we could hope for. See the film, for Close’s work alone.
(image: Sony Pictures Classic)
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