Joan, the wife of revered author Joe Castleman, is overcome with heartbreaking introspection days before Joe’s receipt of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Aims to hurt as much as it does to empathize with its lead. Exceptional.
The Wife couldn’t have released any timelier than right now. Based on the book of the same name by Meg Wolitzer, and adapted to screen by Jane Anderson and Swedish director Björn Runge, the film chronicles the journey of author Joe Castleman’s (Jonathan Pryce; The New World, 2005) spouse Joan (Glenn Close; The Girl with All the Gifts, 2016), taking viewers on a heart-wrenching psychoanalytical ride through her vast emotional volatility. Quite unlike the directness of relatively pointed commentaries on misogyny (George Miller’s Mad Max Fury Road, Brian Yorkey’s Netflix Original 13 Reasons Why), however, Anderson and Runge seem more interested in the dangerous side-effects of microaggression, and the internalization of emotionally abusive behavior.
[Close] gives it her all, and in most of her scene-stealing moments, doesn’t even say a word.
Its 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. 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’ design is that of intentional misdirection, and the ’90s setting only favors the façade before swiftly pulling the rug from under you.
Glenn Close’s nuanced performance as the central character, however, holds all the clues you’ll need to notice the cracks in its foundation before the house of cards falls down. She gives it her all, and in most of her scene-stealing moments, doesn’t even say a word. 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, and Close performs with such heartbreaking sincerity it stings to watch, and yet you’re compelled not to look away.
"Can't take nunya shizzle."
(L-R) Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce star in The Wife, a Sony Pictures Classics and Anonymous Content release.
The film’s most significant turning point, however, 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; We Don’t Belong Here, 2017) walks up to Mozell right after to express her admiration of the “bold,” “vivid” prose, she’s told, “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 of it. 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.
The film wants to hurt you and mostly succeeds in ways viewers wouldn’t have thought it would.
Earlier this year, Brie Larson made a similar impassioned speech at the 2018 Women in Film Crystal+Lucy awards, calling for more diversity in film criticism, and that’s anything to go by, it’s a whole lot more universal than we care to admit. Sure, the movie’s a bit too white to make the comparison to a real-life call for intersectionality in film criticism, but it still stands as food for thought—things haven’t changed much even today; they’re probably worse. The Wife is about the men that Joan gets to liaise with, and the women who stereotype her based on her gender. It forces you to take a hard look at manipulative behavior, the stifled voice of an artist, and the innumerable instances of male privilege and its selfish undercurrents.
The Wife furnishes its image-system with hints of the dangerous side-effects of toxic masculinity on men, and the gross misuse of the narrative of empowerment and agency to fulfill one’s own vested interests. Sure, these little 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 if the screenwriting is anything to go by, it works magnificently. The more you delve into the hows of her present persona, the more you realize the eternal claustrophobia that her collective internalization of microaggressions and misogyny have caused her. The film wants to hurt you and mostly succeeds in ways viewers wouldn’t have thought it would.
The Wife attempts to let its viewers in to hear its protagonist’s metaphorical sounds of painful silence, and for the most part, comes out a masterful character study that will stay with you long after the movie ends. Runge and Anderson have jointly collaborated on a story that deserves your time. Recommended.