Swedish director Bjorn Runge tackles the slow burn of marital disillusion in The Wife, as he delicately charts through a tide of turbulent emotions leading us into the inevitable storm.
What could have been a cliched narrative is elevated to the next level, largely due to the flawless performance by Glenn Close, whose subtle persona hides a spine of steel wielding the ability to eviscerate opponents in their tracks.
The film is based on the bestselling 2003 Meg Wolitzer novel, set against a literary backdrop that works on the presumption that a woman must lay waste to her artistic genius to forge a road for a man’s creative talents.
Sexist much? Perhaps. But whispers of such sacrificial chapters are peppered through the pages of literary history. Yet, Close’s Joan Castleman refuses to align herself as a martyr in this narrative. “Don’t paint me as a victim,” she says at one point in the film. “I am much more interesting than that.” And she isn’t far from the truth.
The film opens on a wintry morning in 1992, where the Castlemans find their lives forever changed after a phone call from the Nobel Foundation in Sweden that informs the couple that Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) has just been awarded the coveted Nobel Prize in Literature.
Joan’s deafening silence following the news hints at an unspoken story, but the time for exploring such emotions is long past. Joe’s win is the cue for his ever-practical wife to get down to work amidst the social flurry, even as she reins in his whimsical fancies and clinically overlooks those ‘minor’ indiscretions.
Joan, for all intents and purposes, is a wife, a mother and a friend. If she once had an identity of her own, it is all but a closed chapter in her life, slowly erased with the passing of time. We see glimpses of her spark in flashbacks when a young Joan (played brilliantly by Close’s real-life daughter, Annie Starke) first crosses paths with the feisty Joe (Harry Lloyd), her college professor who quotes James Joyce to woo his gaggle of fans, while exploiting their thirst for writing.
Yet, behind his flashy facade lies a man with infinite insecurities. As the film weaves between the past and present, more facets of Joe’s self-absorption come to the fore, enough to gain the interest of a weasely biographer, Nathaniel Boone (Christian Slater), who is willing to chase the Castlemans to Stockholm in a bid to milk this anticipated bestseller.
But it’s the enigma that Joan presents that ultimately becomes the story for Nathaniel. Their subtle yet witty banter while tucked away in a bar on a cold afternoon in Stockholm, is one of the highlights of the film and, unknowingly, sets in motion the chain of events that will eventually provide Joan with her salvation.
While credit must be given to Jane Anderson’s cracking screenplay, which allows the anticipated twist in the tale to simmer away on the backburner with finesse, one has to marvel at Runge’s ability to employ the silence before the pressure builds momentum for a final outburst.
Ultimately, though, it’s in those silences that Close truly speaks volumes, be it through a contemptuous glance or an introspective smile. The six-time Oscar nominee skilfully captures the repression of a self-deprecating spouse who gradually embraces resentment in the face of her husband’s narcissism. The gradual transformation of her character is a testament to Close’s acting abilities, which hints at subtle vulnerabilities at moments, while giving way to a bitterness that is unleased with the wrath of a woman scorned.
Pryce spars with Close toe-to-toe, deftly shuttling between the persona of a confident literary superstar in the bright lights, while unleashing his needy behaviour behind closed doors.
At the heart of it though, The Wife is a bittersweet love story that plays out in the manner of a Shakespearean tragedy in many ways. Whether or not this story is for you is irrelevant when considering the fine acting by the film’s lead stars. Could we expect another Oscar nomination for Close, you ask? We say, it’s a shame if she doesn’t go home with this accolade. Like her cinematic character, she has suffered in silence long enough.
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The Wife releases in the UAE on September 27.