Not since Albee’s “ Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf” have we witnessed such a verbal battle between a husband and a wife. Granted the scene is in the closing twenty minutes, but the pent-up fury against husband Joe Castleman is a tour de force for actress Glenn Close. As his wife, Joanie, Close has the role of a lifetime.
”The Wife”, aptly named, is a film that seethes. Close, herself, says it is “ the trickiest role I’ve ever confronted”. One of the reasons may be inherent in the character Joan Archer Castleman, herself. She is full of angry thoughts as she perpetuates a sham for over forty years. It is she ,and not her illustrious husband, who has written his Nobel worthy oeuvre.
We will see this same theme of women who do not get the praise they are due in another new film soon to be released. “Colette” stars Keira Knightley and explores meaning, value, and pleasure in a man’s world. “Hidden Figures” ( reviewed Jan. 10, 2017 ) touched with the same, and showed racism as a second zinger holding women back. What makes “The Wife” stand out is the kingmaker, Glenn Close. Her performance is Oscar ready.
Close’s face is in close-up during much of the film. She is not a pushover. We see a strategist who knows her mind. She once told an infant that she was in love with the baby’s father and went on to marry him. Based on Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel of the same name, the film begins with sex of a sort. Husband Joe tells Joanie that she doesn’t have to do anything~just lie there. It is a good start. Maybe, it is because the wife has done so much already, and she has lied so easily that this is so aptly ironic.
Once the call is made from Stockholm announcing that Joe Castleman has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, we get flashbacks to Joan’s student life and early marriage. Elizabeth McGovern has a cameo role here as the older writer explaining the “good-old-boy-network” to aspiring Joan. Joan listens.
After marrying her instructor, Prof. Joe Castleman, her decision to edit and eventually write for her writing-blocked husband seems an easy fix. Joe has no problems deluding himself that he is the writer. Jonathan Pryce almost goes overboard as the narcissistic, predictably gauche mate, who looks at his wife as a secondary character. He even has trouble bowing to the king of Sweden.
Another interesting self-serving character is the journalist/biographer, Nathaniel ( Christian Slater). He is “trolling for bitterness” and suspects that Joan has written any masterpiece attributed to Joe. He is transparent and direct. “Do you care to confide in anyone?” The blowhard husband and stoic wife is a cliche , but Joan announces that she is no victim. She says she is more interesting than that. And a brilliant fraud she may be. Even Joe and Joan’s son, David, asks himself if he is worshiping at the wrong parental shrine.
Some of the best constructed scenes are the early flashbacks that mirror their contemporary lives. The couple jumping up and down on the bed, young David’s needs not being met, and Joe’s affairs with his hokey walnut missives and James Joyce recitations. He never ups his game : he is so content with himself. But it is the acidly bitter slurs and the twelve-tone musical scale that linger. Womenhood is in constant flux.
Joe acknowledges her at his acceptance speech though she asked him not to. We know that boundaries need to be reset if Joan is to live an authentic life. My favorite ending for this rather unlovable character comes on her flight back to the United States. She will tell her children the truth, but will not malign Joe’s reputation in any way. . How can she pull this off and at what cost? As she caresses the blank pages of the notebook on her lap, we think we know.