In The Wife, as in his 2006 Nordic Council Film prize-winning film Mun mot mun, Björn Runge paints a complex family portrait. Based on Meg Wolitzer’s novel, this time the focus is on the relationship between the writer Joe Castleman (Jonathon Pryce), and his wife Joan (Glenn Close). The film begins with an agitated and frenetic Joe, pestering his sleeping wife, as they await a phone call to tell the old man he has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. His puerility and impulsiveness in the immediacy of the bedroom is endearing at first - an excitable child the night before Christmas. Joan’s half-hearted rebuffs of his clumsy advances seem affectionately maternal. But her softly smiling eyes, tearing at the news of Joe’s success, are soon hardened by anguish.
Pryce plays the family man, humbly accrediting his success to his wife – the love of his life. Although it is later revealed that this apparent humility has a troubling deeper truth, initially these displays of deference strike off-key with the control he exerts over Joan. A bumbling old man – forgetting his medication and leaving crumbs in his beard – Joan follows dutifully in his chaotic wake. Runge cleverly allows for some rueful laughs at the hypocrisy in Joe’s belittlement of, yet complete dependence on, his wife. Close’s dry delivery of cutting one-liners is genius and does well to avoid painting her character as a passive victim.
But, whilst to some extent she is the stage manager – orchestrating subtle damage control - she herself is also stage managed by her husband. As the wife, she is the woman behind the great man – a ‘king maker’ as she later puts it. But although she is an essential part of the principal agent, she is ultimately a pawn.
The bulk of the action takes place in snowy Stockholm, where the Castlemans travel to for the Nobel Prize Awards. Burge’s hyperreal aesthetic adds to the claustrophobia of this Nobel world. Swamped in ceremonies one sees Joan’s stoicism begin to wane. With her husband she is both scrutinised and invisible. The family are also trailed and chivvied by Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater) – a gossiping journalist, desperate to write Joe’s biography. Whilst his interjections feel a little forced and incongruous (why does the family allow him to follow them around when they refuse to let him write the biography?), his digging is the catalyst to revealing the dark secret at the heart of the Castleman’s relationship – that Joe truly would be nothing without his wife, who ghost-wrote all his novels.
On one level The Wife seems to be about the sacrifices women make in their careers to allow their husbands to pursue theirs. The other Nobel prize-winners are all egoistic men, jostling for intellectual superiority whilst their families listen – a silent support team. Joe’s poorly concealed infidelities are another outrageous insult to injury. However, the nuances of the Castleman’s marriage that we are drip-fed throughout the film, through vignettes of their youth, suggest that this dichotomy is over-simplistic. Joan is a victim, but her refusal to reveal the truth of this suggests that on some level she knows that she has let herself become one. She is ashamed that she has compromised her career, and arguably her son’s, and she is ashamed that she may not have fulfilled her literary potential if not for the alias of her husband.
The rancour and regret that she has been suppressing, along with the truth of her own genius behind her husband’s work, explodes in the apogee of the film when she rages at her husband. It is then, when Joe collapses into cardiac arrest, that you realise that to an extent he is also a victim. His control of Joan reflects a deep-seated insecurity. Far from the stereotype, the Castleman’s marriage places Joe as a domestic house husband and Joan as the working wife. Whilst the reverse is presented to the rest of the world, fundamentally Joe feels emasculated. He looks to Joan for affirmation, but her thoughtful introversion slips into emotional inaccessibility, shockingly poignant when her fury switches instantly into that smiling softness displayed in the opening scene. On his deathbed Joe laments that he will never find assurance in that smile.
Both Close and Pryce deliver a striking performance of a husband and wife trapped in a toxic marriage. Joan is imprisoned by her husband, and used to write his book, but she is also imprisoned by society’s expectations of her as a woman and her resulting lack of self-belief. Joe is also trapped by society’s expectations, unable to live with the reality of his mediocre literary skill, or the superior skill of his wife. Joan never gets the credit she deserves, but Joe is driven to death by his insecurity. One can’t help feeling relieved for Joan after her husband’s death - no longer burdened with her caring duties, no longer under the scrutiny of the press. But this liberation does not translate into the justice one hopes. There is no uplifting revelation, and Joan is never venerated for her work. The film ends on a note of disappointment – disappointment at the complex reality of life.