Review: The Wife

Glenn Close’s surprise Golden Globe win for Best Actress in a Drama already pegs Bjorn Runge’s film as a must-see mediocre movie, and, in truth, Close makes it worth your money. As the wife of blowhard writer Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), who is being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Close conveys her character’s mixture of horror and self-satisfaction with unusual delicacy. Why the wife of a man who is being feted for such an achievement has such polarized feelings is the question at the heart of the story’s conflict, and as high concept it’s a doozy, which is why the movie doesn’t live up to its star’s portrayal of the title character—Runge won’t leave well enough alone.

The first assumption the viewer makes about Joan Castleman’s ambiguous response to the announcement is that she’s finally forced to confront the fact that she has never loved her husband, despite the deceptively tender opening scene. As the directness of the title would seem to indicate, Joan’s position in this marriage is decidedly secondary, but the truth turns out to be even worse. Joan has not so much wasted her love on this man, but wasted her life and her native talents. The plot occasionally shifts into the past, when Joan was Joe’s student. He acknowledged her gifts as a fiction writer and eventually left his wife for her. But that act of adultery is not the source of Joan’s towering resentment, and as the scenes in Stockholm, where the couple repair to wait out Joe’s ascension into the Valhalla of world letters, play out in bars and hotel rooms, Joan’s feelings can no longer be denied, and Joe’s own guilt comes to the fore in very ugly ways. Based on a novel, the story didn’t really need to go any further than these sequences where husband and wife go at each other as if in an Edward Albee play, stabbing each other in the psyche with their pointed accusations of exploitation and self-serving monomania. The thing is, Joan’s hurt is real and justifiable. What Joe has done to her in his own passive-aggressive way is monstrous.

So why does Runge add a son (Max Irons) who tags along to present his own resentments about his stalled literary career? To further make the point that Joe is too full of himself to care about even his own flesh and blood? And why the unauthorized biographer (Christian Slater) who corners Joan in a restaurant to torment her with his theory of Joe’s fraudulent front and knowledge of his sexual indiscretions, both of which she is very familiar with and hardly needs to be reminded of? Is it a device to reveal Joe’s execrable personality, which is hardly necessary since we can see from the start that he’s a priggish asshole? It’s obvious that the core issue of the film is why Joan has put up with him all these years, and the movie gets to the solution mainly through Close’s performance. You can see her panic at the realization she’s wasted it all, and when a reckoning does come it’s appropriately apocalyptic, if not necessarily convincing when scrutinized thoroughly. (It helps that the movie is set in 1992, meaning that Joan is the product of an earlier era when women weren’t taken as seriously as they were later as writers, but it doesn’t help that much.) The Wife needs to be seen if only for proof that Glenn Close is one of the most accomplished actresses of her generation. But like Joe in relation to Joan, it’s not a fitting monument to her talents.

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Kadokawa Cinema Yurakucho (03-6268-0015), Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715).

The Wife home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Meta Film London Ltd. 2017

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