The Wife - Review

The Wife gets competing storylines exactly right. It tells the story of the most recent (as of the 90s) Nobel Prize in Literature recipient, Joe Castleman, and his wife, Joan. Played by Jonathan Pryce and Glenn Close respectively, The Wife is an intelligent drama that examines what there is to be done when a shocking secret is uncovered in an already unsteady family.

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Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce lead in what could function well as a play. Events transpire over the several days the two, along with their disaffected and moody son, are in Switzerland. Things are set in motion when appreciative colleagues are fanning Joe’s ego, and acknowledge Joan. He comments that, thank god, she is not a writer. The repressed feeling of embarrassment and humiliation Joan has been feeling since the beginning of her relationship with Joe nears her seams, and the rest of the film chronicles her decision to deal with it. In what is already an incredibly intriguing story, The Wife takes us back to the 50s several times to show the couple first kindling their relationship. I groan to myself. One of the most overused and consistently terrible plot devices in recent film has been the flashback, showing our characters younger and, naturally, less convincing than their higher paid doppelgängers. In The Wife, the roles of Joe and Joan aren’t filled by Timothee Chalamet and Emma Watson, but relative newcomers Harry Lloyd’s and Annie Maude Starke’s performances are marvelous. They display the younger, less matured aspects of each character’s personality while retaining essential flaws. They do not do impressions. This is writing 101, but you wouldn’t believe how many films do it wrong. What’s more, the lighting and mood of these flashback scenes are simple and nearly identical to the main story aside from the change in clothing. Director Björn Runge treats the audience with more respect than most, trusting us to make the distinction between 1950 and 1996 without old Hollywood lighting and ridiculous callback lines that tell us, “Hey, that’s a thing that character said before!”.

Christian Slater plays a nosey biographer who conveniently knows quite a lot about Joan. His character is mostly relegated to the sideline, but his longest scene is simply a poor piece of writing. Slater’s acting is top notch, but the whims from which he seems to pull information he couldn’t possibly know about Joan and Joe are unbelievable. Since it is this conversation that confirms Joan’s feelings towards her husband, its lazy nature lets down the middle portion of the film. The ending doesn’t suffer much better , missing the opportunity to end on the baffling shot of Joe dead on his hotel bed, and instead takes an extra five minutes to show us that everything is going to be alright for Joan and her kids. The morbid ending loses its edge, opting for a feel good closer that makes it look like Joan has already gotten over the events in Switzerland.

The Wife contains virtuoso performances from both Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce, as well as a captivating story from the novel by Meg Wolitzer. It does the audience a favor in its simple transitions between timelines, but falters in its ending and use of Christian Slater as a plot device. This Wife is more entertaining than I expected, and it could have been something great, but it settles for standard just as Close’s character had for so many decades.