The Wife, directed by Björn L Runge, opens in 1992, when novelist Joe Castleton (Jonathan Pryce) picks up the telephone to hear that he has won the Nobel prize for literature. As soon as he realises who is calling, he insists that his wife, Joan (Glenn Close), picks up the extension before any details are revealed: he wants to share the news with her. She’s delighted; they clamber up on to the bed, holding hands, and begin to jump. But it’s not long before we feel the first frostiness between them: “I’ve won the Nobel! I’ve won the Nobel!” Joe shouts, and Joan visibly shuts down. (How does Close do that? There’s not even a flicker on her face, but we see the light fade from her eyes. It’s astonishing.) Clearly, all is not as rosy as it seems…
There’s a revelation at the end of the film that I won’t spoil in this review. I will say, though, that there is no big surprise, and I guess that’s deliberate – it’s not very well concealed. In fact, it’s pretty clear from the trailer where we are headed. But this is much more about the ‘how’ and ‘why’ than it is about the ‘what’ – The Wife is very much a character-led piece, the study of a relationship, and the lies and compromises that make it tick.
Close is extraordinary in the role, combining flinty intelligence and self-control with a much softer, love-fuelled tenderness. Pryce is also very good, his puffed-up pride and self-importance masking his deep-rooted insecurity. We follow Joe and Joan from their first meeting, back in 1958. Young Joan (Annie Starke, Close’s real-life daughter) is an aspiring writer, studying at the prestigious Smith College; Joe (whose youthful incarnation is played by Harry Lloyd) is her professor. He’s married with a baby, but that doesn’t stop them falling in love. And, more than thirty years later, here they are, proving that their relationship was worth it: they’re thriving. He’s a celebrated literary author; she’s the kingmaker behind the throne. They have two children and one grandchild. Theirs is a story of success.
But their son, David (Max Irons), is not happy. He’s a writer too, and desperate for his father’s approval. But Joe can’t give David the validation he seeks: even though Joan insists that David’s work shows real talent, Joe can only offer muted praise.
In Stockholm, as the big Nobel prize ceremony draws ever nearer, the tension bubbles ominously, and it’s clear that something has to give. But what will prove the final catalyst? Will it be Joan’s simmering resentment at being rendered invisible, relegated to the role of ‘shopping with the other wives’? David’s anger at his father’s implied criticism? Or the slippery Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), would-be biographer, and his desire to write an exposé?
The Wife is an engaging drama, astute in its depiction of the petty details that inform arguments with loved ones, the fondness and fury that bind families together. And it shows us too how we never really know the truth about other people’s lives, only what they choose to let us see.