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The Wife

at Filmhouse Cinema Edinburgh

* * * - -

Old literary resentments seep to the surface in tetchy drama.

Image of The Wife

Björn Runge/ Sweden UK USA/ 2018/ 100 mins

@Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 28 Sep 2018

“Behind every great man, there’s a great woman,” goes the saying.  Björn Runge’s The Wife, adapted from a novel by Meg Wolitzer, takes this old adage and runs with it.  Anchored by a superb, malleable turn from Glenn Close, which has been tipped as yet another awards contender in her stellar career, it’s a timely drama about a woman finding her dormant voice and demanding the recognition she deserves, if not from the world at large, then from those who hold her the dearest.

When Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) is awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992, his wife Joan (Close) is filled with conflicting emotions.  The Castlemans’ trip to Stockholm for the ceremony rips the scabs off old wounds and reveals the extent to which Joan has played, as she puts it herself, “Kingmaker” to the lauded writer.

There is an instant feeling of familiarity to the characters.  Castleman is easily recognisable as being in the mould of Norman Mailer and Philip Roth; a distinctly mid-20th Century brand of intellectual masculinity forged in war, or at least growing up in its shadow.  Joe has been frequently and flagrantly unfaithful throughout their relationship; in fact their own marriage bloomed from their infidelity when he was Joan’s writing tutor at college.  Joan is initially cast in the role of the standard, long-suffering but dutiful spouse; a bedrock for the wayward genius.  Famed artistic men have forever been indulged in this way, and the stoking of Joan’s growing resentment in the face of her husband’s preening narcissism is beautifully played by Close; decades of having to hide her own literary light from the public eye forcing their way through like foliage through concrete.  Pryce holds his own as a man who has managed to bury his insecurities under his own bluster and the ill-deserved adulation of his readers.

Less satisfying are the flashbacks to the Castlemans as a younger couple (played by Harry Lloyd and Annie Starke, Close’s daughter)  This delves further into the reasons for Joan’s fury, but the crucible of the Nobel ceremony is aptly more than enough motivation for the ensuing emotional dynamite.  Similarly, a slimy reporter with designs on an unauthorised tell-all biography of Castleman, played by Christian Slater, is another unnecessary catalyst.  The Wife works best when Close and Pryce are front and centre, as both spark off each other so well this overcomes the blunt storytelling of the flashbacks and Runge’s rather workaday direction.

The film’s revelations are easy to decipher, and the ending is almost unforgivably contrived given the nuance in the performances; not least in the way that it ties up the pleasingly frayed edges of a relationship come juicily unravelled.  It’s more than worth watching though for a masterclass of a performance from Close.