Max Irons

The Wife

08/10/18

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.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

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The Riot Club

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20/09/14

The Riot Club’s theatrical roots are apparent in the film’s structure: most of the action centres on a single dinner, conforming loosely to the unities of time, action and place that are not so common in cinema. That said, Laura Wade’s adaptation of her play (Posh) works very well on the big screen, its cast of loathsome characters proving queasily engaging.

The Riot Club is fictional, but it is based – not very obliquely – on the real-life Bullingdon Club, whose famous alumni include David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson. If even half of what the film suggests is true, then it is terrifying to think that we are being governed by such a group of louche, hedonistic, over-privileged thugs.

We see the Riot Club through the eyes of Miles (Max Irons), whose instinctive good nature is compromised when he joins the group. He is flattered to be asked; as Harry (Douglas Booth) boasts, there are twenty-thousand students at Oxford, but only the finest ten can join the Riot Club. Their definition of ‘finest’ is rather narrow: members must be male (of course), and have attended a good school (“Eton, St Paul’s, Westminster… Harrow if you absolutely must”); furthermore, they need the right connections and the willingness to endure a series of bizarre initiation rites. Miles appears to fit the bill, although his fellow club members are bemused and appalled by his choice of girlfriend, a state-educated northerner called Lauren (Holliday Granger). But what starts as fun and silly snobbery soon reveals a darker side: the boys have such a strong sense of entitlement that they cannot empathise with anyone outside their set. They cause mayhem and destruction and do not care; they know that they can pay their way out of trouble.

Parts of this polemical film are genuinely difficult to watch. Life is just a game to the Riot Club boys; they commit atrocious deeds in the full knowledge that they will not just get away with them, but will go on to work in positions of incredible power. They really can do what they like.

I’m scared.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield