“There’s no spontaneity of human emotion, no feeling that anything that’s happening here is how real people would react when trudging through decades worth of regrets and illusions.”
by Ken Bakely
Glenn Close is astoundingly good in Björn Runge’s The Wife. As Joan Castleman, the wife of Joseph (Jonathan Pryce), a newly named Nobel laureate novelist. Despite her lifelong own considerable writing talents, female authors were never taken as seriously as men – especially in the late 1950s, when she first met Joseph. In the thirty years since (the film is set in 1992), she’s always been seen as a silent partner to her famous husband. It’s a belittling life, one that seeks to cast her as an invisible wayside entity at the arm of some mythologically great man (one abundantly aware of how much people admire him), and one that she can no longer abide by. The third act sees her unravel the various confinements that both her conceited husband and culture at large have have relegated her to for decades. Further specifics constitute spoilers, but I can say that to watch Close work through the big and small moments of the piece is something to behold. She holds gazes and pauses with extraordinary skill, and even when Jane Anderson’s script, based on Meg Wolitzer’s novel, calls on her to explode in a handful of extensive monologues, Close retains the human basis of the character, never moving far from who Joan is: a gifted artist, but one who never got the opportunity to shine, as she was relegated to live in someone else’s shadow and hide his secrets and failings. It’s excellent work from an excellent actress, and to whatever extent you should see this movie, it’s for her.
But to evaluate the rest of the film draws the realization that The Wife only works because Close is in the title role. The plot is shockingly flimsy, the dialogue is trite and predictable, and Runge never grapples with the meaning of the characters’ tribulations, despite the fact that he directs fine performances in a story that spans many years of Joan and Joseph’s lives. It plays like a comedy with all the jokes removed, where all that’s left is a threadbare vessel of a story that seems like the launching point for another layer of filmmaking that, in reality, does not exist. The developments are taciturn and the payoffs are rife with self-satisfaction. Considering this, it actually might turn out to be one of Close’s greatest opportunities to demonstrate her prowess as a performer, as she develops a three-dimensional character from a screenplay that otherwise doesn’t indicate such an accomplishment is even possible. Taking everything together, the movie lays flatly on the ground, as the remarkable positives of Close and the cast (Pryce is also commendable) and the dismaying negatives of cumbersome storytelling mix into an oddly-pitched final product.
The key problem here is that every moment is obviously telegraphed. There’s no spontaneity of human emotion, no feeling that anything that’s happening here is how real people would react when trudging through decades worth of regrets and illusions. It’s all boxed into neatly assembled outlets for big acting with predictable zeal, when the real development going on here is what Close can fit into the tiny moments that the movie otherwise brushes over. The Wife is the kind of film where you know what characters are going to say before they say it, and you can predict particularly clichéd lines right down to the word. Its ending takes the accumulated tension and releases it in quick succession, but the falling actions seem vacant again, supplying us with little to leave on and less to remember. Only the particularly piercing reply or the stray introspective scene sticks out as a memory. The rest is a stew of ideas half-formed or better performed elsewhere, lifted by performances that look for greater truths, and because of the pedigree of their performers, do indeed find them with relative frequency.
Where does that leave us? Perhaps with more frustration than anything else. Clearly the components were here for a much stronger movie that sincerely understands Joan’s struggles, and contextualizes them within broader social constructs. Instead, it’s a paint-by-numbers kind of middlebrow drama, where all the spaces are already occupied by the safest possible interpretations of them, with no room for growth or innovation – in formal or thematic senses. There’s nothing here that’s truly bad, but the feeling of The Wife making lateral moves due to insipid plotting renders its aspirations staid. When in Stockholm to accept the Nobel, Joseph’s self-aggrandizing interviews are often peppered with insultingly false moments of accreditation, when he emptily claims that he appreciates all that his wife has done for his work. It’s obvious that he doesn’t understand or care what that actually means, and even though it’s clearly true, such reality is lost on him. It’s the closest the movie gets to exploring one of its setups with depth; Joan’s reactions to his shallow attributions are marvelous and wrenching. If that kind of deep dive had held, the sky would have been the limit, but it’s just a tantalizing look at what could have been.