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Review: The Wife

February 23, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The title of The Wife, a literary drama from Swedish filmmaker Björn L. Runge, works to perfectly encapsulate how the female spouses of famous men are often spoken about. These women are rarely seen as “partners” or “equals,” and often they aren’t even introduced by name.

They are simply known as “the wife,” a term that is often said with a slight hint of dismissiveness, as if their entire purpose is centred around being married to a well known man. They are constantly being referred to by their place within the marriage, and known simply for their relationship with their husbands.

The wife at the centre of The Wife is Joan Castleman (Glenn Close). At the start of the film, her husband of forty years, Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), a celebrated author, gets a call that he has won the Nobel Prize for his acclaimed literary work.

They travel to Stockholm, Sweden in the dead of winter for the awards ceremony, where the charismatic Joe is met with adulation. As he works the room, Joan has to stand back and smile and is expected to gush over how proud she is of her husband’s achievement. But she is tired of being known simply as “the wife,” because she is every bit her husband’s equal, and maybe even his superior. Flashbacks to when the two of them were young – played by Harry Lloyd and Close’s real life daughter Annie Stark – show us that Joan was also a writer, and Joe was her professor, who always had a certain amount of jealousy over her innate talent.

Their time in Stockholm is complicated by the presence of several other characters. The couple’s son, David Castleman (Max Irons), is also along for the trip, and he is himself a writer who longs for the validation and approval of his ambivalent and at times dismissive father. From the time they are on the plane, the family keeps being approached by Nathanial Bone (Christian Slater), who has been hired to write a biography of Joe and quickly gets brushed aside by him, but is looking to unearth old secrets by courting the attention of Joan and David. Finally, there is the young photographer Linnea (Karin Franz Körlof), who has been hired to take pictures of Joe, prompting him to start flirting with her.

While The Wife starts out as a fairly straightforward drama, it quickly turns into something far more complex. The screenplay by Jane Anderson, based on the novel of the same name by Meg Wolitzer, is fascinating for the way that it studies and probes the relationships between its small but rich ensemble of characters, building with a highly literary quality. The film becomes a compelling look at simmering tensions and long-buried secrets, anchored around Close’s masterful portrayal of a spouse’s quiet anger and carefully guarded resentment.

There is no doubt that this is Close’s movie – her character’s position within the story is right there in the title – and the veteran actress delivers a gripping and nuanced performance, both in moments where her character has to feign pride in her husband’s accomplishments, and when her heavily internalized rage becomes very much externalized. Her presence in the movie is felt even when she is not physically onscreen, and it’s no surprise that she received her seventh Oscar nomination for the role.

Close is complimented by excellent supporting work from Pryce as her husband, who slowly reveals the full extent of his own character’s jealousy and resentment; as well as Irons as the son who is increasingly torn between his two parents, as he longs for the approval of his father and comes to terms with the fact that maybe he doesn’t need it; and Slater as the author who at first seems to be an antagonistic force, but whose intentions are much more complicated than they initially appear.

Runge directs The Wife with a subtle but sure touch, wisely keeping the focus on the performances first and foremost, as the intimate cinematography of Ulf Brantås captures the nuances of the actors. This is a quietly powerful character drama that sneaks up on you, offering a masterclass in understated acting.

The Wife is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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