It took almost a year for The Wife to get its wide release after debuting at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, and a second theatrical run for me to actually see it. It came out in mid-August, literally the day before my birthday, but between the demands of the production I was working on at the time and the fact that MoviePass was in the early stages of their plans to fuck over their entire customer base, I ended up missing it. Thankfully, with Glenn Close getting a slew of awards and nominations, the film has re-circulated in theatres before it comes out on DVD in January, giving me a second chance to see it.
And thankfully, for Close’s performance alone, the film is worth seeing. She portrays Joan Archer, the doting wife of noted writer Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce, the High Sparrow from Game of Thrones; side note, forgive me if the best frame of reference I have for most European actors is GoT, but it is turning into the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game for the new millennium), who is to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Joan has more dimensions to her character than the rest of the cast combined, and is equal parts nuanced and flagrant when the scene calls for it.
Told mostly through flashbacks, Joan and Joseph’s marriage has been sort of rocky, with the younger Joe (Harry Lloyd, aka Viserys Targaryen from GoT – sorry) teaching English Lit at Smith College, eventually leaving his first wife (and infant son) for Joan (Close’s daughter Annie Starke), his most promising student. They share a love of literature, especially character and form of prose, which leads to admiration, affair, and eventual marriage and children of their own once Joe becomes a successful author. But even then, things aren’t great, as the two never really come together as parents or as writers, and Joe has other affairs to satisfy his ego while Joan gives up her passions to be a housewife because it’s almost impossible for a woman to break into literature in the mid-20th century.
In the film’s present day (1992), Joan must adopt different character traits depending on whoever shares the scene with her. When the press come knocking, she’s loving and devoted, ceding the spotlight to Joe at every opportunity, and sincerely begging not to be acknowledged. In private, she sways back and forth between attentive caregiver to Joe to enabler of his more grander delusions to confrontational truth-teller. When needled by outside figures who denigrate Joe, she reserves her vitriol, translating it into carefully worded, witty smackdowns before more directly insulting them under her breath. The array of angles with which Close has to conduct herself is absolutely marvelous, and worthy of Best Actress consideration.
Sadly, like other Best Actress vehicles in recent years (Still Alice immediately jumps to mind), there’s almost nothing else worth your attention in this film. Adapted from a novel by Meg Wolitzer, Swedish director Björn Runge oddly stages the film as if it’s more of a play, and directs his cast to project their voices as if they’re in a theatre rather than on stage. As such, Pryce, Lloyd, and Starke all play one-note characters. Joe is narcissistic in both old and young forms, while young Joan is just a shy, doe-eyed doter. The other major characters are the same way, in the form of son David Castleman, who only whines about his father’s lack of approval for his own writing (David is played by Jeremy Irons’ son, Max, so at least he knows what it’s like to emerge from a famous shadow), and in the form of Nathaniel Bone, a journalist who fanboys Joseph in an attempt to get the goods for an authorized biography, but then tries to use silver-tongued manipulation with Joan for an unauthorized one he plans on writing anyway. He’s played by Christian Slater, who does a fine enough job, but ever since his exaggerated CIA agent character “Slater” on Archer, I just can’t see my fellow 8-18-er any other way. I imagine fans of Mr. Robot feel the same way these days.
This is an odd adaptation, and not just because it reads more like a stage play than a novel or film. The central crux is discovering the level of Joan’s contribution to Joe’s literary career and how much of a charlatan Joe really is. The problem with that is that, as previously mentioned, all the characters besides Joan are completely one dimensional, which defeats the entire purpose. How can you make literary arguments when the characters making these arguments read like something out of a cheap YA novel? Further, the film is set in 1992, and a lot of effort is put in to give the film a sense of verisimilitude, particularly when it comes to cultural elitists. But the thing is, there is no Joseph Castleman. The 1992 Nobel for Literature went to Derek Walcott, a poet from Saint Lucia. Did I personally know this? No, but it was easily researched. Substituting melodrama when fact says otherwise pulls me right out of the movie. Would it really have been so hard to just make up a literary award for Joe to win, or to leave the timeline somewhat ambiguous so as to not pin down a specific year? It robs the film (and one would assume the source material) of credibility when your antagonist is a man who makes up his literary credentials when you yourself are making up history that doesn’t exist in such a transparent way. And in doing so, it almost makes the film completely unenjoyable. Glenn Close is the only thing that elevates this work beyond some random made-for-TV soap opera-style Lifetime movie.
There are some who say that this is the best performance of Glenn Close’s career, and they may be right, give or take an Albert Nobbs or two. But at the same time, the film plays like she’s the belle of the ball and everyone else is a D.U.F.F., a Designated Ugly Fat Friend put up alongside her to make her look even better. In a vacuum, the performance is still very good, but I get the weird feeling that the rest of the film is intentionally mediocre to elevate her profile.
Because honestly, if you want a better version of this exact story, there’s an episode of The Simpsons called “Please Homer Don’t Hammer ‘Em.” In it, Marge teaches herself carpentry, but can only get work if Homer is the public face, because no one will hire a woman to do a traditionally male job. The extra money, along with Homer’s selfish ego, is enough for him to eagerly take credit for Marge’s work to the point of straining their marriage. At its most basic form, this is the same story of The Wife, and it’s over in 30 minutes, 22 if you skip commercials. And if you watch the episodes with Homer’s mom, Mona, you still get Glenn Close!
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Should carrying an average film earn you an Oscar? When will the Swedish Bikini Team get their long overdue Nobel Prize? Let me know!