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Posts Tagged ‘The Wife’

Movie lead-times are substantial beasts, and the fact is that if you’re making a smaller, independent film, you’re probably looking at another lengthy wait between its festival outings and whatever kind of general release you eventually manage to swing for it. So it is always a bit of a bagatelle as to whether any given movie will actually come out looking topical or relevant to the great issues of the day, and when one does the makers should be congratulated for their good fortune rather than any particular insight or skill.

And so one should be wary of being too fulsome in praising the makers of The Wife (directed by Bjorn Runge): this is a film which is certainly hashtag-friendly and very much resonant with the Unique Moment and its aftermath, but it’s not as if anyone planned it that way. However, this would have been a noteworthy film, no matter when it was released, and it’s not as though a little extra oomph will do it any harm when awards season finally rolls around.

thewife

The movie plays with that old notion that behind every great man there is a great woman, and pondering just whose greatness we should really be paying attention to – not mention how all this feels from the woman’s perspective. It opens in the USA in 1992, with distinguished grand old man of letters Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) receiving a long-anticipated phone call from the Nobel academy in Sweden – he has been awarded the Nobel prize for Literature! Well done old boy! Castleman is utterly delighted, as is his wife Joan (Glenn Close). Soon they are on a plane to Stockholm, accompanied by the son with whom they have a somewhat strained relationship (Max Irons).

Also on the plane is Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), another writer of slightly less respectable stripe, who is very keen to write Castleman’s biography. Castleman vehemently objects to this idea, but that doesn’t seem to be putting Bone off the idea of doing it on an unauthorised basis.

Soon enough everyone is in Sweden and preparations for the Nobel ceremony are underway (it’s not really the focus of the film, but The Wife does make very clear just how odd some of these Swedish traditions are). But everyone seems to be stressed out, for reasons that are not immediately clear. Joan needs to get away from her husband for a while, and finds herself having a drink with Bone, who finally raises the topic that must never be raised: she was a talented writer in her youth. Castleman was not. He only began his ascent to success and acclaim after they got married. Could it possibly be that there are aspects of her contribution to the marriage that have gone hitherto undisclosed…?

There’s a sense in which you turn up to watch The Wife expecting something which is, putting it broadly, a let’s-give-the-patriarchy-a-good-kicking movie: the film is after all about a woman whose talent and hard work are ignored in favour of her husband’s much more marginal contributions, with the theme raised to an almost operatic pitch by the nature of the story.

As such, the film shows a lot of diligence in establishing its theme: Joan is, in every sense, the adult in her marriage, acting as Castleman’s caregiver – almost a surrogate mother – and having to excuse his various indiscretions. She appears to be there in a supportive, almost wholly passive role – ‘You don’t have to do anything, just lie there,’ whispers an in-the-mood Castleman at one point, in one of the less inspiring pieces of seductive dialogue I’ve heard recently. The film makes it very clear that for all his fame and endless praise heaped on him by the Nobel academy, the writer is really a rather less substantial figure than his public image suggests: reliant on the same schticks, lines, and routines to impress those around him, particularly the younger women to whom he seems especially drawn.

Of course, this is a long-established pattern of behaviour, and – as is practically a convention in this kind of film – we also get to see the couple as young people; Joseph is played by Harry Lloyd (who’s almost made a career out of this kind of part: he played Young Denis Thatcher in The Iron Lady, for example), and Joan by Close’s daughter Annie Starke (who’s almost made a career out playing her own mum as a young person). He was her university professor, unhappily married when they met; the scenes make clear that…

Well, to be honest these scenes make it clear that whatever’s going on here, it’s not quite a clear-cut as you might initially think. Of the two main characters, Joan is the more sympathetic of the two (Joseph emerges as a fairly needy, petty individual), but that’s only a relative thing – Joan isn’t just steely, she is often cold and ruthless, especially when the couple themselves start to discuss that which must never be mentioned as the film goes on. What has happened is unfair, of course, but she has also been complicit in it for decades – and the film also makes it clear that this hasn’t exactly been pleasant for Castleman, either.  Women writing under male (or male-sounding) pen names in order to get published is also a long-established matter of record (just ask J. K. Rowling) – it feels a little unfair that the film almost seems to be implying it’s all Joseph’s doing.

You could probably argue that the whole movie is done in slightly broad strokes this way – there’s perhaps just a touch of melodrama about the whole thing – it was put to me, for instance, that it kind of beggars credibility for Castleman to be as totally ignorant of the contents of ‘his’ books as the film implies – the grand deception wouldn’t have lasted two years, let alone over thirty. However, it is saved by the strength of the two lead performances – Pryce isn’t the one most people are looking at, but he is very good as Castleman, convincing as the famous author, but also as the little man behind the legend.

But it’s Glenn Close that people will be looking at, I suspect. The thing that makes her performance here such a very notable one, and such an impressive piece of technical acting, as simply because she is playing such an apparently quiet and passive figure – for most of the movie she doesn’t get the big scenes of tempestuous emotion, she’s just quietly there reacting to other people. And without really doing very much at all, she communicates with perfect clarity exactly what her character is thinking, how she feels, the immense patience, the long-smouldering sense of injustice tamped down so hard it has become part of the foundation of her character.

The Wife is a solid and enjoyable drama, even though it does have that slightly broad-brush quality in places. What makes it work are the quality of the two leads, whose performances are both immaculate. Glenn Close currently holds the record for being the actor who has received the most Oscar nominations without ever winning the award; I would not be surprised if this was the film which relieved her of that distinction.

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