While depicting the sexism of the 1960s, The Wife proves to be a compelling film purely on the basis of Glenn Close’s performance.
To most people, Joan Castleman (Glenn Close) is the wife of her prolific author husband, Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce). The two couldn’t be more different. This shows not just during the present day (1992) or the flashbacks to Smith College in 1958 or Connecticut in the 1960s. When the Castlemans learn that Joe is going to be named the winner of the Novel Prize in Literature, they both jump on the bed. The scene is called back later on when Joe learns he’s getting published.
Let’s talk about Joe’s career for a moment. It’s entirely based on a lie. This also speaks to the era in which Joan graduated college. Her talent had already been established when she was enrolled creative writing classes at Smith. It was words of warning from author Elaine Mozel (Elizabeth McGovern) telling a young Joan (Annie Stark) to get out of the game while she could. Mozel didn’t want Joan to be just another alumnus with her books on the alumni shelf. For women of her day, that’s the only success they would be able to see.
A few years out of school when Joan is working at a publishing house, she takes the bait when she overhears a person say they need to find a Jewish writer. Her Brooklyn-born husband is the perfect candidate. But when she reads the first draft of his book, she learns just how bad of a writer he is. She starts ghostwriting his work while he takes all the credit. All this hurt only builds up over time.
Years later, Joan doesn’t hide the hurt. It builds up to a point in which she finally cracks knowing the truth behind the lies. This comes during the dinner following the Nobel Prize ceremony. It wasn’t a matter of if but when if you ask me. The way that Close expresses Joan’s feelings makes one wonder if she channels her own anger at missed opportunities. Joan is every bit Joe’s equal but as we learn throughout the film, it’s more than that. Joan was robbed of the literary career she should have had. She’s known as being the wife to the Great American Novelist when this woman with “the golden touch” should have been the literary sensation.
With Joe being the rock star, it’s not surprising to see that their son, David (Max Irons), decides he wants to be a writer. He couldn’t even get his own dad to tell him his feelings about a short story he wrote. Can anyone really be surprised? Yet it’s Joan who always has to navigate the murky waters to find the peace.
As Joe gets feted in Stockholm, Joan’s feelings start showing and Close plays it wonderfully. It leads to the longest scene featuring journalist Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater). Bone means well in wanting to write Joe’s biography but Joe keeps shrugging him off. Once we get to know the Castlemans, we understand why. In telling Joe’s story, you’d essentially be letting the world know he was a fraud and that Joan was the true star.
Pryce is every bit Close’s equal in the film. Their performances feel theatrical at times but are very well fit for the cinema.
The fact that it’s such an important time for women in the industry gives The Wife a timely feeling.
DIRECTOR: Björn Runge
SCREENWRITERS: Jane Anderson
CAST: Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Christian Slater, Max Irons, Harry Lloyd, Annie Starke, and Elizabeth McGovern