The Wife: Unexplored Inequality

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

** ½ (out of 4)

WARNING: Some spoilers in review.

Björn Runge’s The Wife concerns an occasion that ought to be happy. It’s the fall of 1992, and Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), a hugely successful author, learns that he’s won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Naturally, the news leaves him elated; right after receiving the early-morning phone call, he jumps up and down on his bed, shouting “I won the Nobel!” like an eight-year-old. Yet despite her statements to the contrary, Joe’s wife Joan (Glenn Close) never really seems to share in his excitement. Eventually, we learn why: Joe’s “profound” and “groundbreaking” novels were actually all ghostwritten by her.

As a film, The Wife is about the oft-involuntary sacrifices that women make for men, illustrating the tensions that lie beneath the familiar, “My wife is my better half” platitudes that successful men always toss out in victory speeches. In keeping with this theme, furthermore, there are two things that work in the movie’s favor. First, en route to the Nobel Prize award ceremony in Stockholm, the Castlemans find themselves obligated to attend numerous receptions; despite her private misgivings, this means that Joan has to at least look like she’s happy for her husband. In this regard, the stately, eerily slow-moving cinematography ably speaks to the idea that she has to maintain a tranquil public facade.

The other good thing about The Wife is Close. To illustrate Joan’s emotional repression, Close gives a master class in the use of facial expressions. If, like Joe, you weren’t really paying attention, Close’s Joan might always appear to be content. Yet throughout the film, her countenance invariably wears ever-so-slight signs of inner bitterness and turmoil. Ultimately, Close does such a good job portraying inhibition that when she finally erupts in anger during the film’s conclusion, the outburst doesn’t feel overdone; rather, it unfolds as a natural outgrowth of the suffering that her character has silently endured throughout the story. Here’s hoping the Academy remembers Close when awards season rolls around.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

For all its strong points, however, there’s one thing that The Wife never gets around to explaining: Joan’s paradoxical submissiveness to Joe. Right from the get-go, after all, it’s clear that Joe is an awful human being. In the first place, he’s a manipulative narcissist who consistently proves oblivious to Joan’s feelings. Eventually, moreover, we also learn that he’s an unapologetic womanizer. One character euphemistically speaks of the many “indiscretions” he’s had over the years – and in Stockholm, we watch him eagerly pursue a young Swedish woman who’s assigned to be his personal photographer.

In light of her husband’s various failings, you’d think that Joan would at least try to stand up to him. Instead, what’s most surprising about her is the extent to which she voluntarily cares and covers for him. When a journalist (Christian Slater) presses her to talk about her ghostwriting during a private interview, for instance, she flatly denies that she ever did any such thing. Moreover, at the end of the film, she brusquely informs Joe that she plans to leave him; in an abrupt, revealing about-face, however, she then rushes to his side in affectionate concern when he has a heart attack. As indicated by these and other scenes, Joan is well aware that her husband is an arrogant, sexist jerk. Yet over the course of 40 years, she’s always supported him, “indiscretions” and shameless exploitation be damned.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

In many ways, Joan’s acquiescence to Joe is the most mystifying part of The Wife, and you can’t help but wonder why and how she rationalizes her passivity. Yet while Runge does a good job illustrating Joan’s submissive behavior, he doesn’t bother exploring her behavior’s underlying motivations. If anything, in fact, he often makes Joan’s actions seem downright implausible instead. Based on what we garner from flashbacks and present-day shots, Joe and Joan’s relationship – she was once his student, then his full-time ghostwriter – has never given rise to “precious memories” or any form of emotional intimacy. Rather, their marriage is always portrayed as a one-sided vehicle that merely serves the ambitions of Joe, namely the dominant male.

The flaws in The Wife become especially apparent when you compare the film to Puzzle, another movie released this past summer. Like Joan, Puzzle’s protagonist, a middle-aged woman named Agnes, is a housewife who voluntarily cares for her sexist husband. But we eventually also learn that Agnes grew up in a conservative, devoutly Catholic household. As such, when we watch Agnes dote on her husband, we understand that she’s simply acting on a deep-rooted conception of how women ought to behave.

In contrast to Agnes, however, nothing in Joan’s backstory can explain her submissive behavior vis-a-vis Joe. In the first place, Joan doesn’t appear to be particularly religious. Moreover, whereas Agnes is unfamiliar with the very concept of female autonomy, Joan attended Smith College in the 50s – the same time, in other words, as feminist firebrands like Gloria Steinem – and she had her sights set on becoming a published author. For these reasons, the idea that Joan would willingly stick up for her unscrupulous, good-for-nothing partner (or even agree to marry him in the first place) simply stretches credulity.

After Joan tells Joe that she’s leaving him, the two of them engage in a heated argument. An exasperated Joe tries to defend himself from Joan’s accusations of sexism and exploitation; when he fails, however, he finds himself exclaiming, “So why the f*** did you marry me?” Joan’s answer – a tearful, bewildered “I don’t know” – is telling in more ways than one. She’s not the only one who’s confused; as audience members, we’re left in the exact same state of unknowing. Worse, Runge isn’t even aware of our plight – because it never seems to occur to him that Joe’s question is worth pursuing at all. In the end, unfortunately, that lack of curiosity is the big reason why The Wife proves such a frustrating watch.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

***

The Wife (2017)

Starring: Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce

Running Time: 100 minutes

MPAA Rating: R, “for language and some sexual content.”

Produced by: Claudia Bluemhube, Meta Louise Foldager, Piodor Gustafsson, Rosalie Swedlin, Piers Tempest

Written by: Jane Anderson. Based on Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel.

Directed by: Björn Runge