A Nobel laureate is propped up by his sacrificing wife in this film by Bjorn Runge
Glenn Close soars above the script
Late one night, Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) gets a phone call. He excitedly asks that his wife Joan (Glenn Close) get on the extension. The voice at the other end informs Joe that he has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The year is 1992. Joe and Joan have been married 40 years, yet they get on top of their bed and jump up and down in glee. Some days later, at a party to celebrate his achievement, director Bjorn Runge establishes the family dynamic – an adored daughter expecting her first child and a son (Max Irons) who is desperately seeking his father’s approval as a writer.
Where Joe is the celebrated author and “artiste", Joan is the dutiful and supportive wife, reminding him of his medicines, ensuring that his spotlight remains blemish-free. In flashback, we see snapshots of their courtship, when she was a bright student in his class in an all-women’s American college, and he was a struggling author in an unhappy marriage. In the 1950s, publishers regarded women writers as unsaleable. In that environment and desperately in love, Joan decides to forsake her potential to support Joe.
“A writer must write" is one refrain to which the response is “A writer has to be read". This forms the crux of the partnership between Joe and Joan: that of king and kingmaker. But in 1992, as her husband is lauded on the world stage, Joan’s stoic support for Joe begins to unravel. Also in Stockholm is Nathanial Bone (Christian Slater), a biographer who has selfish reasons for egging Joan on to speak up about her role in husband’s ascent and achievements.
The Wife is the story of a woman who placed a stone on her ambitions to help a self-centred philanderer. But with a trip to Stockholm, where Joe’s shenanigans are caught out, and her own simmering discontent, Joan can no longer tolerate the façade.
Jane Anderson’s script is an adaptation of a Meg Wolitzer novel of the same name. With many scenes set indoors – in hotel rooms, bedrooms and living rooms, and a limited cast, it might have adapted better as a stage play. Runge leaves enough space for his actors to perform and for the festering drama to erupt.
There is no surprise ending, so it’s up to Pryce and Close to hold the 100-minute narrative together. Close soars above the script and is riveting in a story that comments on patriarchy and the mystique surrounding authors and their prose.