The Wife opens with a sex scene – not alarming, necessarily, but not romantic either. A middle-aged couple lays in bed. The man is restless; the woman asleep. He wakes her up, and his hand snakes out of view, under the sheets. No, she says, as she groggily turns to him. Not now.
It seems like they’ve been through this before, though, and they both know how this scene plays out. They’re simply acting out a ritual. “You just have to lie there,” he says, coaxing her like he must have before. “Do nothing.” She gives in eventually, and even enjoys herself. Soon, the man turns over and falls asleep, the transaction complete, the status quo maintained.
The next day, he is awoken by a phone call informing him that he has won the Nobel Prize for literature.
He tells the kind man on the line to wait while his wife gets on the extension; he wants to share the moment with her. Together, they dance on the bed in celebration. But for the second time in the same day, she asks him to not do something. “Don’t thank me in your acceptance speech,” she says, “I don’t want to come across as the long suffering wife.” He does it anyway.
The Wife is a searing drama about relationships, not only between writer Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) and his wife, Joan (Glenn Close), but also about men and women, and the crippling generational fallout of patriarchy. It might even be the greatest film of the post #MeToo era, although it was made before the allegations against Harvey Weinstein were first reported in 2017.
The film has had an unusually long and vacillating release – sort of like an old marriage coming undone. It is technically a 2017 movie, having first been screened at the Toronto International Film Festival that year, before being released in American theatres a few months later, and in the UK a few months after that. It arrives in India just ahead of the Academy Awards, where Close has been nominated for
She is – and I say this as the greatest fan of Yalitza Aparicio’s work in Roma – my absolute favourite for the Oscar. It’s difficult to take your eyes off her, even in Joan’s many moments of silence. Years of being put in her place, patronisingly introduced by her husband as his ‘better half’, and then being sent away to discuss fluff with the other women while Joe bares his soul to the world with his art has almost convinced her that she is just that — a long suffering wife.
Joan seems like an archetype for others like her, and not just an isolated example of a woman kept on a leash. Swedish director Bjorn Runge shoots her from some distance – as he does most of the film – almost as if he is too scared to approach her, the ticking time bomb that she is. Instead, he employs slow zooms, almost indiscernible in their sneakiness. Scenes begin with Joan in mid close-up, but as you’re being swept away by Close’s quiet intensity, the perspective shifts, and before you know it, her face is occupying the entire screen. She is slowly finding herself, the film seems to say; she is becoming the woman she was always meant to be.
Because years ago, Joan was a writer. Her relationship with Joe war born out of infidelity. Joan was a student of his, and entranced by his passion, they formed a co-dependant relationship – she’d validate his subpar skills, and he’d pretend that he is the sort of damaged artist he perceived himself as.
It was a different time then, when women would dissuade other women from following their dreams, almost as an act of protectiveness. They would sacrifice their ambitions for archaic notions of stability and normalcy (propagated by men), only to be struck, years later, by the realisation that their lives have amounted to nothing. “A writer needs to write,” Joan says in one scene, confronted by another female writer, who replies with unmistakable bitterness, “A writer needs to be read.”
The Wife is mostly set in 1992, inside enclosed spaces such as hotel rooms and aeroplane cabins, in bars and ballrooms. The story of Joe and Joan’s romance is told through flashbacks, in which Joan is played by Close’s real-life daughter Annie Starke.
Close in the recent annual actresses roundtable, conducted by the Hollywood Reporter, revealed that the film had been stuck in development for 14 years before being greenlit. “It was hard to find actors for a film called the Wife,” she said plainly. In the end, her on screen husband, played by Jonathan Pryce, is just the right amount of narcissistic and pathetic.
Unlike Big Eyes and Hitchcock – two similarly themed recent films – The Wife doesn’t operate within the binaries of good and bad. Most relationships are more complicated than that