Director: Bjorn Runge
"The Wife" | Nuanced performances elevate this narrative
Swedish director Bjorn Runge’s The Wife, written by Jane Anderson from Meg Wolitzer’s novel of the same name, is a taut, simple and sleek character study of an ageing woman who, married for 30 odd years, re-examines her life after being complicit in many of the decisions she has taken along with her husband, in order to maintain a stable marriage.
Narrated in a non-linear manner, the film opens in 1992 with the Castlemans: Joseph (Jonathan Pryce) a successful writer and his wife Joan (Glenn Close), in their Connecticut home, trying to fall asleep, when a phone call from Sweden announces that Joseph is to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The news alters the sombre mood in the bedroom, we witness a spectrum of emotions that range from excitement to hesitancy to detached aloofness as the duo toss and turn in bed. This sets the narrative rolling to establish the delicate, thorny and riled closeness of the happily, long-married couple.
The script is compelling and intriguing. It subtly brings out the underdog story to the forefront with issues of how women were treated in the literary world, the behind-the-scenes dalliances, mechanical co-dependency, gentle resentments and hunger for independent thinking.
There are moments that lead to cliches and unnecessary melodrama, which could be frustrating but those moments are well-handled and few. But, what gives heft to the writing is the attentive detail given to the unassumingly detached characterisation and the nuanced-powerhouse performance by its ace cast.
It is a treat to watch Pryce deliver a terrific narcissist character while masking his own pain. Over the decades, he has several adulterous affairs and tells everyone that his wife Joan “does not write”. Pryce is engaging and infuriating as a man relishing the fame and notoriety of his success but equally co-dependent on his wife to meet his basic needs.
Glenn Close as Joan Castleman gives us a content, loving and often submissive character who, despite the circumstances, remains firm and close to the man she fell in love with during her youth. It is a delight to watch her skilfully measured, silent rage erupt on screen with simple facial expressions, which the camera captures while she reacts to her world around her.
The duo is aptly supported by Max Irons as their son David, an aspiring writer who idolises his father and seeks his critique and approval for his first short story; Christian Slater as the journalist Nathaniel Bone who is accompanying the Castlemans to Stockholm with the intention of convincing Joseph to give him the rights of his biography; and Annie Starke, Close’s real-life daughter, who beautifully portrays the younger version of Close’s Joan.
The Wife is a clever, subtle and moving portrait of a woman whose strength is hidden to those who simply see her as the wife. Its premise is so akin to director Tim Burton’s January 2015 released Big Eyes which featured Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in key roles.