As the adage goes, and as memorably sung by The Eurythmics in Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves, behind every great man is a great woman. Björn Runge’s The Wife, adapted by Jane Anderson from Meg Wolitzer’s novel, deconstructs that cliché and transforms the archetype of the loyal wife of a male genius into a believable, fundamentally human character.
Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) receives a phone call informing him that he’s to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature while his wife Joan (Glenn Close) listens in. Her face portrays a kaleidoscope of emotion, from pride to loss, and yet retains a mask of unknowability. Glenn Close has built her career upon playing strong-minded women, from Fatal Attraction’s Alex Forrest, to the Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons, to Patty Hewes in TV series Damages, but her performance as Joan may well finally win her a long-deserved Academy Award. Pryce is excellent as the narcissistic author but this is unmistakably Close’s opportunity to shine.
With sardonic humour the film places the sidelined Joan centre stage as the Castlemans are flown to Stockholm and swept up in the pomp of the Nobel ceremony. Joan must endure a series of humiliations, from being relegated to shopping trips and beauty treatments, to picking Joe’s clothes up off the floor, to being repeatedly introduced as Mrs Castleman, the wife. She lowers her head as she sees him eyeing up an attractive young female photographer but she isn’t the submissive, long-suffering cliché. “Don’t paint me as a victim,” she says with a tight-lipped smile to probing journalist Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), “I am much more interesting than that.” We soon learn from a series of flashbacks that Joan’s talent as a young writer surpassed that of her husband but the ingrained sexism of publishing confined promising young women to pouring men’s coffee.
“Without my wife I am nothing,” Joe announces proudly, as if expecting another award for his humility, while Joan looks on, silenced and ignored. As tensions simmer and their struggling writer son David (Max Irons) brings a revelation to light, decades of Joan’s repressed rage come rising to the surface. She will not be silenced any longer.
A compelling and fundamentally adult drama, it’s a fascinating study of how patriarchy entraps and suppresses the female creative voice in order to uphold the myth of the untouchable male genius. And yet Joe and Joan (their names mirroring each other beautifully) can’t be so easily cast as villain and victim. “My wife doesn’t write,” says Joe with a self-satisfied smile. But in Glenn Close’s extraordinarily subtle performance pages upon pages of unwritten words seem to come bursting out.