Director Björn Runge’s slow-burn marital-implosion drama The Wife stoked an anger deep inside me. In my three years as a Master of Fine Arts student of fiction writing, again and again I’d heard through the whisper network how so-and-so’s wife was actually the real talent, plucked as she was as a young writing student herself by her instructor-cum-husband. I’d watch as the tight-lipped wife lingered on the periphery of craft conversations, never asked her opinion, while young people clamored for her partner’s attention.
The Wife, scripted by Jane Anderson and adapted from Meg Wolitzer’s novel of the same name, explores this literary cliché from the perspective of the talent behind the talent. This is a portrait of a decades-long partnership coming to a head but also of the American literary community reckoning with what so many know to be true: Women are still not seen as “serious” writers or contenders for major prizes. And men can’t keep their hands off their young students.
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Glenn Close plays Joan Castleman, wife to literary superstar and cheesy James Joyce-quoter Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), whom we meet when the Nobel committee calls to inform him he has won the prize. Joe profusely thanks “my wife” (always with that qualifier) for being his rock, protecting him from pushy journalists and occasionally signaling to him when he’s got a stray bit of something left on his lip. This surface story is so familiar that I thought I would surely be bored, but it is the depth Close lends to Joan that kept me riveted — and angry.
A persistent journalist named Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater) suspects there’s more to Joe Castleman’s literary legacy. He plies the cautious Joan with alcohol then needles her with questions about her rumored role in her husband’s work, all while Joan’s eyes sparkle with fear and need. Her answers are clipped, brusque, yet charming. She betrays just enough of her composure to hint that there is something deeper on her mind, and in these moments the camera is wisely immobilized, staring at Close’s face head-on.
In one scene, as Joe accepts his award, we’re treated to long shots of Close watching from the audience, her expression shifting from joy to panic and then to regret. It brings to mind the iconic, slow, four-minute push-in shot on Nicole Kidman in Jonathan Glazer’s Birth. Both feature a character silently tripping through a personal revelation; very few filmmakers are brave enough to trust their actors to indicate such a major plot point using only microscopic facial muscle movements. Credit for that narrative bravery should be shared with Anderson as well. Novel adaptations so often express a character’s interiority through artificial means, such as expository dialogue, but Anderson tamps down those impulses.
Perhaps it is the self-awareness of these characters that elevates the film; they’re living a cliché, even as they’re arguing over the clichés in the stories they write. I still found myself surprised and moved by Joan’s story, though annoyed by the use of flashbacks, which are, yes, cinematic clichés themselves. But it is almost as though the film is acknowledging its premise’s tired shortcomings and asking us to focus on the art and feeling in this woman’s mundane life — which is something Joan also instructs Joe to do at one point when he criticizes a passage of her work that details a woman’s quotidian chores. “That’s the point,” she says. A woman’s life is all the work and none of the glittered glory.