Film & Television

Glenn Close is Riveting (and Oscar-Worthy)
as ‘The Wife’

But, as the title implies, The Wife truly belongs to Close. Her performance is one of sharpness and precision. To the world, Joan is the perfect helpmate, the elegant consort. “Please don’t paint me as a victim,” she advises an insistent journalist (Christian Slater), contracted to write an unauthorized biography of her husband. “I’m much more interesting than that.” However, even as she nags Joe to eat well (he’s had multiple bypass surgeries), take his pills, and brush the crumbs out of his beard, she is simmering under the surface. And, when she finally boils over, her rage and rancor harken back to another woman scorned, Close’s memorable turn as the iconic one-night-stand-turned-murderous-bitch in Fatal Attraction. Like Alex Forrest, Joan Castleman will not be ignored.

Joe’s condescension (“I wouldn’t be anything without the love of my life”) and adultery might be enough to drive a spouse righteously mad, but The Wife hints at greater betrayals, which are illuminated through flashbacks. These are affecting scenes with particularly strong work from the two actors who play the Castlemans in their youth (Harry Lloyd and Close’s real-life daughter Annie Starke). We learn that Joan was a student of Joe’s at Smith in the 1950s. He saw great promise in her writing (and even greater promise, apparently, in the attractive young writer herself). He eventually left his wife and baby to marry Joan and they formed a literary partnership of sorts, in response to the norms of the day.

At one point in their courtship, Joe takes Joan to hear another writer, Elaine Mozell (Elizabeth McGovern), read from her latest work. The star-struck young Joan gushes that “Writing is my life.” This naive cliché seems impossible — Mozell warns her that women are not taken seriously as writers; men control what is published and purchased. But it proves also to be prophetic. Writing will become Joan’s entire life, but not in the way she had once hoped.

The older Joan may not want to be portrayed as a victim, but The Wife argues that she is one. The question, however, is who or what is the victimizer? Is Joe truly a villain, or was it the misogynist system that kept Joan from fulfilling her own destiny as a writer? Or, and here is where lines become blurred, did Joan herself author her own story and character?

At the banquet following the Nobel Prize ceremony, King Gustav of Sweden asks Joan if she has a career. “Yes,” she answers, “I’m a king-maker.” “My wife would say the same thing,” laughs Gustav. However, Joan isn’t joking. In fact, as her husband gushes on and on from the dais that he owes all of his success to her, she becomes more and more enraged, sparking the fight to literally end all fights.

Lest this sound like a film that is relentlessly dark, there is some subtle and intelligent humor in The Wife. At a cocktail reception, soon after Joe’s prize has been announced, an editor from The New York Times tells him that he’ll be on the cover of the magazine section because they’re “bumping Clinton.” It isn’t hard to draw a parallel between the two great and philandering men and their loyal and long-suffering wives. When Joe has some trouble remembering who to bow to when in a rehearsal in Stockholm, the Nobel laureate for physics scolds him, “This isn’t rocket science.” There’s even some sex, although it’s about as awkward as any scene in memory.

Throughout the film, in lighter moments as well as darker ones, The Wife insists that the old saying “Behind every great man there’s a great woman” ignores a more disturbing variation of the story.

In this case, it would be more apt to say, “Behind every great man there’s a far greater woman who has given up who she was and what she did to ensure his greatness.” With this in mind, the movie can’t have much of a happy ending. However, Close’s Joan has reconciled herself to some of her decisions. She plans to take control of the narrative, both public and private.

The happiest of endings, however, won’t be revealed until late this winter, when — hopefully — Close will win a well-deserved and long-overdue award of her own.


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  • Stephen Granzyk September 4, 2018 at 5:22 pm

    This laudable effort by Close and the other actors cannot save this film from the most unlikely implausible premise. The concept is a given–men have used and abused women and taken advantage of selfless givers forever, but as the story unfolds the fact that a novelist could simply hoodwink the entire world into believing he actually wrote novel after novel after novel that he didn’t write–or that any creative genius would do it over and over and over and still suffer not only her husband’s pride but his ungrateful infidelities as well, without all mayhem breaking loose sooner as opposed to later, could only be entertained by someone who has no idea what actually goes into such a completely exhausting effort–a novel maybe, but not a life time of them. I fear the script may doom Close’s Oscar bid as well.