What do forty years of living together as a married couple entail? Do the still waters of marital bliss run deep, or as everything stagnant, there’s fetid secrets deep beneath? Based on Meg Wolitzer’s novel and written for the screen by Jane Anderson, The Wife takes a devastating look at what it takes for one such marriage to hold up, even if it’s springing leaks in places that were hidden for the longest time.
Opening in 1992 in Connecticut, US, cerebral and celebrated author Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) is on the edge, expecting a call from the Nobel Prize committee any moment, and his nerves don’t let him sleep. What he does next is a sneak peek into the couple dynamics, as he turns to his fast-asleep wife Joan (Glenn Close), wakes her because he’s jittery, and proceeds, using guilt and helplessness as weapons, to have sex with her, despite her initial protestations. Why she gives in and why he has his way is marinated in the forty-year long relationship, which director Björn Runge explores in this tight drama piece, observing without flinching the upper hand that the man wields and the stiff upper lip that the woman purses.
As the Nobel Prize is announced and Joe is the winner, a celebratory party thrown by Joan is the opening salvo by the director that gets in the Castleman family together — daughter Susannah (Alix Wilton Regan) expecting and glowing in the warmth of her future light and troubled, intense son David (Max Irons, very good) who’s a struggling writer. But his biggest struggles are in getting approval from his famous father, who’s border-disdainful of his son’s writing efforts.
As the couple and their son travel to Stockholm for the ceremony, pursued by a nosy biographer, Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), the story whirs and spins into the past, into the young couple’s relational genesis — the cocky, married professor Joe (Harry Lloyd) and the infatuated, in-awe student Joan (Annie Starke, Close’s daughter in real life), and how the love of words and writing expands its desirous wings to encompass what seems like a life-long shared passion between them. But as the movie cuts between the present and the past, it cuts open multiple veins of secrets, compromises, and sacrifices. And yet, it also discomfits with just how complex relationships are; even if one of the partners holds a paintbrush dripping in black, no relationship is stark in its color: it’s always complicated shades of grey.
Director Runge adds layers of intrigue and tense palpitating paths to the drama, unfolding what it takes for opposites to attract, and then, as one of the poles overpowers and controls, to keep the stickiness going. Composer Jocelyn Pook adds classical and opera-like power to the proceedings, even as her cell pieces explore the depths of loneliness and poignant corners in the relationship.
The Wife is elevated to high-res punch by its cast. Christian Slater, true to his role and character’s name, turns up an act that leaves no bone un-chased, and his scene with Close in a bar is a highlight, undercurrents of spark, cool seduction, and newsgathering, all rolled into one. Jonathan Pryce is magnificent, his performance dripping with narcissism and grating double-standards, forever manipulating till the end, taking on a role that’s got mostly downsides.
But The Wife belongs to the superb Glenn Close. In the titular role, her performance is subdued, troubled, and yet keeping it all in, letting only a throbbing-vein-like hint surface. If the movie looks at how an all-male management subdued a woman’s fine skills and perforated her confidence, her act in the movie’s present is a troubling and troubled portrait of all the years that a woman absorbs, making the poison a part of her bloodstream, every swallow a bitter experience. The actor’s façade for her character is terrific, her eyes and stares — that pump out bullets of long-suppressed secrets — maneuvering the movie to its shattering yet liberating end. After the movie ends, you want to go back and watch her to fully appreciate how beautifully nuanced her act was, reading all that her expressions were actually telling you. Her loudest message? “Till death do us part” could be the best part of a wedding vow.Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.
The Wife is rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) for abuse, intimacy, and abuse of intimacy.
Director Björn Runge Time 1h 39 min
Writer Jane Anderson
Stars Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Christian Slater