“The Wife” couldn’t have been released any timelier than now. The drama is based on the book of the same name by Meg Wolitzer and adapted to screen by Jane Anderson and Swedish director Björn Runge. It chronicles a specific episode of author Joe Castleman’s (Jonathan Pryce; “The New World,” 2005) spouse, Joan (Glenn Close; “The Girl with All the Gifts,” 2016). Days before Joe’s receipt of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Joan is overcome with heartbreaking disillusionment in the ensuing days.
The film’s apt title—prone superficially to dismissal as a lazy weekend afternoon watch—is a subtle dig at the well-known adage of successful men and women (“Behind every successful man is a woman.”). The process is slow and steady, but with the right amount of patience and focus, it becomes clear that Anderson aims solely to upend the flawed maxim and maul it to the ground. The film kicks off like the first act of any classic drama—Joe’s about to win the Nobel prize. His wife is overwhelmed by the information, and his son David (Max Irons) maybe probably totally hates him. The makers are banking on intentional misdirection. The ’90s setting only favors the façade before swiftly pulling the rug from under you.
However, Glenn Close’s nuanced performance as the central character holds all the clues you’ll need to notice the cracks in its foundation before the house of cards falls down. She gives it everything and doesn’t even say a word in most of her scene-stealing moments. An emotional breakdown at a crucial juncture in the movie is preceded by a crescendo of Joan going through practically all the emotions a person in helpless anger possibly can. Close performs with such heartbreaking sincerity it stings to watch, and yet you’re compelled not to look away.
However, the film’s most significant turning point is when it flashes back to the ’60s at an eminent cynical author Elaine Mozell’s (Elizabeth McGovern) book reading. As a younger Joan (played by Close’s real-life daughter Annie Starke) walks up to the author right after to express her admiration of the “bold,” “vivid” prose, Mozell replies, “The public can’t stomach bold prose from a woman.” Mozell is the voice everyone thinks of when they think of art, artists, and criticism. The men “write the reviews, run the publishing houses, […] edit the magazines.” You’re prone to feel a deafening emotional quiet, even as the bitter-with-time writer pleads to Joan that writing isn’t a woman’s avenue.
Earlier this year, Brie Larson made a similarly impassioned speech at the 2018 Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards, calling for more diversity in film criticism. If that’s anything to go by, it’s a lot more universal than we care to admit. Sure, the movie’s a bit too white to treat it like a real-life call for intersectionality in film criticism, but it still stands as food for thought—things haven’t changed much today; they’re worse. “The Wife” is about the men Joan gets to liaise with and the women who stereotype her. It forces you to take a hard look at the stifled voice of an artist and the infinite instances of male privilege and its selfish undercurrents.
“The Wife” fills its image system by hinting at the dangers of toxic masculinity on men and the gross misuse of the narrative of empowerment and agency to fulfill one’s own vested interests. These little evolutionary arcs aren’t necessarily conclusive, but they’re only a means to an end and serve well. We’re meant to see Joan’s world exclusively through her outlook, and the screenwriting helps it work magnificently. The more you delve into the hows of who she is, the more you realize the suffocation dealing with sexist jabs has caused her. The film wants to hurt you and mostly succeeds in ways viewers wouldn’t have thought.
“The Wife” is a masterful character study that will stay with you long after the movie ends. Runge and Anderson have collaborated on a story that deserves every second of your time. Recommended.