Over the last few years female empowerment has reached a whole new level of relevance on the national stage. Feminism, neo-feminism, and the #MeToo movement have all played a hand in trying to inspire women to be stronger than the limits society has set upon them. While several films have touched on this movement one movie in particular that was released just a few weeks ago has quickly become a favorite and has begun to earn respect as a modern feminist classic. That film is “The Wife”. Based on the novel by Meg Wolitzer “The Wife” has gained a lot of attention for shedding some light on the sacrifices a wife makes for the sake of her husband’s success and the performances alone have made it a must see according to critics. With all the buzz surrounding it I final got to see it for myself and the big question is does “The Wife” balance its social commentary with grace or is it just another heavy-handed film living off the emotional weight of a modern movement? Let’s take a look. This is my review of “The Wife”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“The Wife” stars Glenn Close as Joan Castleman, the wife of a successful author names Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce). Joe receives a call that he has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and that he is to travel to Stockholm to be a part of the ceremony. Joe is narcissistic and thinks highly of himself and his status as a writer often presenting his wife as merely a sidekick in his endeavors while Joan is fiercely loyal to Joe despite obvious walls that have been built between them. During their trip to Stockholm the pair is shadowed by a persistent writer named Nathaniel (Christian Slater) looking to write a biography about Joe. Flashbacks to their younger years reveal that Joan played a much more important role in Joe’s success than the world knows and as Joe’s big day draws closer the secrets of the past begin to surface leading Joan to rethink her life choices.
A lot of the buzz from “The Wife” has been focused on Glenn Close and I’ll be honest it’s all much deserved. Close is a great actress with some excellent performances, two television Golden Globes, three Primetime Emmys, and six Oscar nominations to her credit but this performance could very well be the one that earns her the coveted statuette. Close is mesmerizingly focused in this role, playing Joan Castleman, a woman who has stood by her husband’s side and made hard sacrifices to benefit his career, with poise and confidence. The awarding of the Nobel Prize causes her to reminisce on those sacrifices she made which, in turn, brings her to revelations years overdue. Close could have easily over or under played this performance but instead she turns in a strikingly subtle but effective take on a strong woman finding a new strength within her to finally do right by herself more than her husband. Close handles this role like a true professional, never overplaying her character’s personality and being patient with how her revelations develop. Using subtle facial twitches and expressions as well as an evolution in her tone and even the way she looks at her on-screen husband Close says so much with so little. She feels like a real person experiencing real realizations in one of her most intimate and graceful performances to date.
While Close is getting most of the love from this film it’s hard to overlook the other half of the equation too. Jonathan Pryce plays Joan’s narcissistic husband Joe Castleman and again we find a role that could have been completely overdone but Pryce handles it well by finding a nice balance between compassionate and caring and self-centered and egotistic. In some ways the performance may seem a bit heavy handed, painting the husband as a truly despicable man who takes advantage of his wife, but more often than not Pryce manages to give us a complicated individual who’s ignorant of his own misgivings in a world where men do have an unspoken advantage from birth. Pryce plays Joe as a man who is as much of a victim as he is guilty. He put himself in this situation as he was desperate for recognition and success, but he also seems to truly love Joan and respect her to a high degree. Best of all it never feels like Joe is meant to be a representative of all men even if we do get characters throughout the movie that only support his misogynistic take on the world. He’s just ignorant of his own ego and how that rubs off on not only Joan but others as well. Somehow Pryce manages to bring to life a man in a man’s world who seems to care about the success of women but is more wrapped up in his own success that he forgets to appreciate what his wife brings to his life. It’s a performance we can all relate to and one that gets the message across without demonizing the gender as a whole.
There is a third major player in this picture and that’s Christian Slater’s Nathaniel, a writer who shadows Joan and Joe because he wants to write Joe’s biography. I think Slater does fine with this role but I also feel like there’s not a whole lot of purpose for him being there other than to provide a source for the revelations that are unveiled over the course of the film. He’s there to be the one to uncover secrets that lead to not only Joe’s credibility being questioned, but Joan questioning her position in the marriage. Slater does fine working off of Close specifically who he spends more screen time with than anyone else in the movie and he provides a pitch perfect take on the ruthless journalist looking for a juicy story, but there’s not a whole lot of substance beyond that. I feel like there was more this character could have been to maybe add some more subtext to the film, maybe a B-story focusing on the unhealthy attributes of journalists. Instead Nathaniel doesn’t feel like an important addition to the story as much as he feels like a catalyst to kick the plot into a new gear. In my opinion it’s a good performance wasted on a character meant to do nothing more than progress the story as a third party.
Considering the subject matter and the abundance of different opinions in today’s world “The Wife” is bound to stir a variety of different emotions and takes on how it handles certain themes. For me I found it to be a tastefully done movie for the feminist era, one that focuses on many of the problems that truly need to be addressed in America while never outright demonizing or glorifying either of the people involved. A well written script and screenplay combined with pitch perfect acting help “The Wife” take on the male dominated world with class allowing viewers to compare and contrast its two characters without either of them feeling completely in the right or wrong. The way this film chooses to portray the divides of men and women in society paints both husband and wife as victims of an established system. The wife fell in line with social norms while the husband simply did what he wanted to do believing his wife was alright with their arrangement. In a cool way “The Wife” tackles the gender divide in a manner where there are no villains or heroes, only victims of a reality that needs to be changed. Joan could have stood up for herself at any time but chose not to and instead allowed the social norms of the world to dictate who she is. Joe clearly loves his wife but chooses not to change the status quo because he’s benefiting from it and embraces the delusion that the two are on the same page because Joan never speaks against it. Both decide to settle on a lie because they don’t believe the world will accept them otherwise.
Taking things further “The Wife” uses flashbacks to delve deeper into the back stories of these two people, with Annie Starke, Glenn Close’s real-life daughter, playing the younger Joan Castleman and Harry Lloyd playing the younger Joe. Having not read the book this movie was adapted from I didn’t expect to see “The Wife” delve into the story to this extent but I’m glad it does because it sheds light on how these two got to where they are now. There’s an old cliché that people are a product of their past and that’s a huge theme in this story. Joan’s revelations are accompanied by flashbacks that show how her personal decisions contributed to her position in life and how this is both a result of the limits of her gender for the time as well as her own compromises. Once we find out the truth we begin to realize that in many ways she’s no better than her husband, but we feel less angry with her because she isn’t ignorant of the impact of those decisions and she still stands by her husband and the choices she made. She doesn’t have to like them, but she has chosen to live with them which is a powerful reality for a lot of women today not just in the United States but all around the world. It’s a message that needs to be heard but “The Wife” never acts like it’s saying anything important. Rather it says what needs to be said, does so with class, and allows the viewer to fill in the blanks as most great films do.
Finally, I enjoyed how this film was shot, using closeups and wider shots to capture the intimacy of the moment. When Joe and Joan argue it’s usually in the confines of a limousine which is subtly symbolic of how trapped they are with each other even when they want to create distance. When they’re in their hotel suite as lot of times the camera uses tracking shots, focusing on a single character and moving with the argument. When it’s not doing that we get a lot of closeups which puts us right in the middle of the chaos and makes us feel like we are a part of the conflict. It feels like every choice with the cinematography has a purpose, whether it’s to create a claustrophobic feel or to accentuate the chaos. When the husband and wife are happy together we also get elongated shots on a single scene with a steady camera, seemingly meant to represent how the chaos has settled down. All of these creative choices feel deliberate and help make “The Wife” a watchable film with artistic merit.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
The problems with “The Wife” for me are more geared towards the pacing and side characters than anything else. There are some parts of this movie that are painfully boring and drag on a little too long. Although they do add to the narrative I did found myself asking the movie to get to the point several times and it was a bit easy for me to check out in the more tedious parts of the film. I think that’s because this is a very focused story specifically designed to follow just two people and explore their relationship with each other. It makes the world seem so small and occasionally makes it hard to invest in the journey because it can feel a bit one dimensional even if the characters themselves have a lot of complicated layers. If you can get past that though you’ll find “The Wife” also benefits from this slow pace, allowing time for revelations and conflicts to build up with small little moments that seem less important at one time becoming much more significant later in the film leading to some cool “ah ha” revelations for the viewer to smile at. It’s a balancing game and depending on how much respect you have for these kinds of projects “The Wife” could be either a delightfully engaging character study or a painfully boring drag that goes nowhere fast.
Probably the biggest problem I have with “The Wife” though is how the remainder of the characters are all pretty much forsaken. I already touched on Christian Slater’s character but he’s not the only one who seems underused. Max irons, son of Jeremy Irons, plays Joe and Joan’s son David and there’s a side story build in about him seeking his father’s approval. This could have easily been a well-developed B-story about a son who was seeking acknowledgement from the wrong person and there are hints of that story sprinkled in the project, but it’s never seen through and becomes just another tool for driving the main plot without being fully realized. Other sub stories include Joe’s infidelity and his interaction with his fellow Nobel Prize winners who prove to be just as misogynistic as he is. All of these could have made for great additions to the narrative and while I give the filmmakers credit for trying to avoid complicating this movie with too many story arcs and remaining focused on developing the main plot effectively, even just one of these ideas being seen through more fully would have added to “The Wife” and built on the subtext. “The Wife” is a great film but I found myself wanting a little more from it than what I ended up getting. I feel like there’s a lot left on the cutting room floor that could have easily made for a more engaging story especially when one of the biggest turnoffs of this film is its slow pace. It’s hard to invest fully in a film when it presents conflicts that are never resolved or go nowhere in the grand scheme of things even if they’re still important to the central plot of the picture.
“The Wife” is a solid film and one that’s not only watchable but probably one of the most important movies of the year. Is it fun and always engaging? No not really. In fact, to the right (or wrong) viewer it can be really boring and take a while to get to the point and there are a lot of subplots that could have easily been built on that I don’t think would have harmed the film as much as improve upon it. But if you give it time and enjoy the message it’s trying to send and the points it wants to make “The Wife” ends up being a tastefully, competently made drama for the feminist age that shows that not every barrier between women and men is black and white. Through great character development for its leads, impeccable acting and careful storytelling “The Wife” tackles controversial but relevant themes in a manner that feels real and honest without ever going over the edge into heavy handed territory. Simply put it’s a great movie worth investing in if you have the chance even if it could have been better. The performances truly shine, even the ones that are underused, and while some may automatically despise it for its supposedly feminist agenda it’s one of those films that you really need to see with an open mind to appreciate at its core. It’s not for everyone, and certainly not for the closed minded, but “The Wife” is a solid picture all the same that I’m glad I took the time to see for myself.