Directed by Björn Runge | Written by Jane Anderson, based on the novel by Meg Wolitzer | 100 min
Joe Castleman is a legendary American man of letters. Joan is his wife. They’re in their 70s, and Joe is insufferable. It only gets worse when he gets the call from the Nobel people in Sweden, to be awarded the Prize in Literature. He and Joan fly to Stockholm where they’re wined and dined, and the various pressures of the event and Joe’s roving eye start to chip away at their relationship. Then we flash back to where they met in their 20s in some tweedy, ivy league college, where Joe was the professor and Joan his student.
In their senior years, Joe and Joan are played by Jonathan Pryce and Glenn Close, with Christian Slater offering strong support as a biographer on Castleman’s trail, keen to get as much dirt as he can for a book he’s writing.
In their younger days, Joe and Joan are played by Harry Lloyd and Annie Starke. She’s believably introverted as a younger version of Close, but Lloyd is a big, blustery baby… all entitlement, bruised ego, and whining. His performance makes it difficult to understand how this demanding, unpleasant, and insecure young writer seduced his future wife, especially as he was already married at the time.
There’s also the adult son, David, played by Max Irons, who joins his parents in Stockholm. He’s an aspiring writer, desperate for his father’s attention and approval, but sullen when he doesn’t get it. As he behaves like a sulky teenager, the lesson we’re to take is David’s parents’ issues have been visited upon him, but since David doesn’t seem to have much of a personality other than reactionary, his whole arc doesn’t work.
As we go along, it’s no surprise to learn that Joan has had a heavier hand in Joe’s success than the world knows, making The Wife an interesting release in the same season as Colette, a true-life story of a woman who was a ghostwriter for her husband for years.
The film played at TIFF in 2017, and has taken a long time to open, having been a late-announced closing film at FIN. Close is already getting Oscar buzz from the film, and there’s no denying her powerful moments—as we learned back in Fatal Attraction, resentment and rage are her sharpest notes, and here she strums them loudly. Pryce is also typically fine, and they share scenes where they’re plausibly a couple who’ve been through all the shit together, including his various indiscretions.
The Wife wants to show how longtime attachment, and maybe the influence of old-fashioned gender roles, has some of us grow accustomed to all manner of compromise in our relationships, but the script is bathetic. Where Colette found the courage to step into the light more than a century ago when all the odds were against her, The Wife serves up a character who downplayed her talent, who put up with all manner of humiliation, who didn’t reach her breaking point until very late, but even then not really. There’s nothing to cheer for here.
It works as a portrait of domestic discord—thanks to the two leads—but too little nuance ends up leaving it feeling like a strident, one-act play with a couple of notable thesps shouting up to the cheap seats.
Opens in Halifax on Friday, September 28, 2018