“Behind every great man, there’s a great woman.” In The Wife, that’s quite an understatement. This examination of a relationship at a high point of the husband’s professional life shows just how much involvement the wife in question has invested, and how much she’s had to endure and suffer over the years as a result.
Celebrated author Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) has just been named as 1992’s Nobel Prize for literature, capping off a highly successful career to date. By his side, as she’s been for 35 years, is wife Joan (Glenn Close), a former writing student of Joe’s who gave up her dreams of writing in order to become his (second) wife, the mother of his children, assistant, editor, and countless other duties in order to aide his career.
Beginning with a reception at their home, and continuing through the Castlemans’ arrival in Stockholm for the ceremony, the dynamic of their relationship becomes clearer. Joe is clearly enthralled with the recognition, and constantly makes sure to thank Joan for her help in getting him to this place – thanks that Joan frequently downplays, telling Joe on multiple occasions that she’d rather not be thought of as a long-suffering wife.
Joan’s resistance towards being treated like such a thought only grows once they arrive in Stockholm, where the couple also contend with their son David (Max Irons), an aspiring writer in his own right who wants the approval of his father. Also distracting the couple is a writer (Christian Slater) who’s itching to write a biography on Joe, and is keeping an eye on when he can approach a member of the family.
Periodically, the film flashes back to the beginnings of Joe and Joan’s relationship. With each glance back, we begin to understand the true nature of their relationship, and how it’s evolved over the years. As Joan makes her way through the Nobel ceremony’s process, the issues that have plagued her marriage begin to become more evident to her, and she begins to reevaluate her life.
Let’s get this out of the way: yes, Glenn Close could very well win her first Oscar, after six nominations to date, for this role. While a win at this point could be seen as a make-up win after her previous losses (she’s tied for the most nominations among actresses without a win, and the only one of those still alive), her performance in The Wife is in fact some of her finest work to date. She gets a few big, showy moments that only an actress of her caliber can pull off, but she’s just as impressive during the much quieter moments that dominate the film. With a mere look, she can convey a wide range of repressed emotions, and it’s utterly captivating.
Pryce is just as impressive here, with a performance that is frequently charismatic even as it becomes increasingly apparent just how much of a prick Joe Castleman is to those in his life. Joe Castleman is the embodiment of white male privilege, and in the rare moments where he’s called out, he seems more stunned that someone’s calling him out on his behavior than the fact that he’s acting in foolhardy ways in the first place.
These performances elevate a story that, at times, can be predictable. The story hits plenty of beats audiences will likely predict, even if the outcomes at times take some slightly surprising turns. Director Björn Runge lets his actors’ performances take center stage, sometimes to the detriment of the visual aesthetic of the film. But the performances – they’re stunning, which makes it hard to knock Runge too much for focusing on them. If for no other reason, The Wife is worth watching for the two characters at the center.