The Wife (2017)
At Black Maple Magazine, we reserve the right to revisit old and oldish pop culture gems to keep you inspired, stimulated, and aware. Here’s a flashback film worth revisiting.
The inner workings, power dynamics, and mind games of heterosexual relationships have been on our minds lately. In our recent review of the film Fair Play (2023), we explored the twenty-first century fall out from a love gone terribly wrong when the female partner of a newly-engaged couple outworked and out succeeded her fiancé at the office. And we’re talking cutthroat Wall Street! But before the gripping thriller Fair Play came the pensive and brooding drama The Wife (2017). This Björn Runge film stars the Oscar-winning chameleon Glenn Close (who won a Critic’s Choice Award, a Screen Actor’s Guild award, and a Golden Globe for this performance) as Joan Castleman opposite the celebrated Jonathan Pryce who plays her acclaimed novelist husband, Joe Castleman. But is he, in fact, a novelist?
Set between scenic Connecticut and snowy and glittering Stockholm, the film follows the couple from their early days as professor (Joe) and student (Joan) at the prestigious all-girls Smith College, to the later years of their not-quite devoted marriage as the couple travels to Sweden for Joe’s Nobel Prize in literature. But is it Joe’s Nobel prize? Indeed, when we first meet Joan, she is a starry-eyed, innocent, and far too impressionable college student who very unwisely falls for her married professor who seduces her with his seeming erudition and trite and overly practiced displays of affection like writing sentimental phrases on a walnut shell and bestowing the “present” on a wholly smitten Joan. Do people still say smitten? Well, we’re saying it in part because it fits and in part because we’re talking the 1950s. In today’s parlance, Joe would be called a player.
Joan soon goes from babysitter for Joe and his first wife’s child, to second wife as she works at a publishing company that is quite literally, like the Wall Street of Fair Play, an old boys’ club. As Joe’s career falters – he has lost his job at Smith and suffered multiple rejections from publishers – Joan adopts the role of ego-booster-in-chief, propping Joe up with reassurances of his talent while delicately trying to let him know exactly what is wrong with his not-so-great writing. From these early moments we can see precisely what Joan seemingly cannot, that Joe is a philandering waste of space who uses cruelty, aggression, and sex to manipulate Joan into tolerating his rampant dysfunction and doing his work, meaning his writing, for him. In one particularly difficult scene we see the young struggling (financially and emotionally) couple in a rather dingy apartment with the younger Joan (played by a wide-eyed Annie Starke) gingerly trying to break bad news to an unstable and distraught Joe. When Joe hears of yet another rejection his response is not that of a dedicated husband and partner. Quite the opposite, he threatens to upend their lives and leave Joan and is only talked down when Joan promises that she can fix his writing by acting as his editor.
Flash forward to the twenty first century and Joe is eagerly and nervously awaiting a phone call from Stockholm, Sweden. That would be the call from the Nobel committee informing him that he has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. But as ego-maniacal as always, when the anxiety of waiting overtakes him, his suggestion to his near-sleeping wife is for her to distract him by having sex.
The news of the prize shifts the film to glorious Stockholm where Joe is celebrated and waited upon as if he was royalty. Indeed, it is the King who will present the prizes at the ceremony. But Joan and Joe are not alone in Stockholm, they are accompanied by their son David (Max Irons) an anxious and depressed young man who is also in the family business. He is, you see, an aspiring writer desperate for his father’s approval which Joe arrogantly withholds. Also on their flight, in their hotel, and around every corner is the biographer Nathanial Bone (played with a touch of self-interested smarm by Christian Slater) who is desperate to get the green light for a biography on Joe. For a man with so much ego, Joe suspiciously wants nothing to do with the project. The reasons emerge as the film unfolds and Joe repeatedly thanks his wife at different functions for her unwavering support, inspiration, and overall rock-in-the-storm qualities. But is that all Joan has been?
When Nathanial convinces Joan to accompany him for a drink (and a smoke) in a local bar, she unintentionally reveals too much about her working relationship with her husband, confirming Nathanial’s suspicions that it is she who is the real literary genius and not her petulant, man-child husband. Joan, ever the “good” wife who has clearly had decades of practice in sublimating her desires, aspirations, and dreams to her husband’s, flees the bar denying her role in Joe’s success.
But even saints like Joan have breaking points and hers comes when she sees that Joe is on the verge of having yet another affair; this time with the young female photographer who has been assigned to commemorate his every move in Stockholm. Yes, she pries the walnut he was going to bestow on her out of his guilty fist! The fight scenes when Joan finally blows and unleashes on Joe are a release and a relief for the audience since we finally see her righteous anger directed at the man who has exploited and manipulated her for years and literally stolen her intellectual property and slapped his name on decades of her literary gems. But the culminating fight scene is both illuminating and frustrating as Joe launches counter attacks at Joan, denying her full credit for her glorious work by complaining about how her brilliance harmed his frail male ego and drove him to cheat. Come again?
Yes, it is in this scene in particular that the audience waits for Joan to finally come to full consciousness, to embrace her true value and unquestionable worth and stride out the door, walking out on Joe, the Nobel Prize ceremony, and the lie of their seemingly enviable marriage. That she doesn’t is not for the reason most would expect. But it is in the final moments of the movie that Joan must reconcile her choice of a life with a man whose unconscionable behaviour slowly stripped her of her dignity and stole from her all that she had earned, the global recognition of her literary genius.
As portrayed in the film Fair Play, The Wife is a study in what happens when a talented, brilliant, vibrant woman disavows her ambitions and desires for the good of her heterosexual relationship, or more to the point, due to the overbearing, child-like, petulant, and narcissistic ways of her selfish “partner”. Both films are also full of lessons for men on how not to be a manipulative creep to the one you claim to love! But they also serve as a dire warning for all women to honestly assess the intentions and actions of their male partners and to hold firm to their own dreams, plans, and goals as they navigate the still bumpy, sadly uneven, and certainly unequal terrain of heterosexual unions.