It’s generally considered part of the bargain that, when two people agree to share their lives in marriage, occasional sacrifices will need to be made by one for the benefit of the two.
But where should the line be drawn? Just what must one be willing to forsake in the name of love?
This is the question at the heart of The Wife, the stirring, well-acted, if conventional new film from Björn Runge. Adapted from Meg Wolitzer’s novel by Jane Anderson, The Wife follows lauded novelist Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) and his devoted wife Joan (Glenn Close) on a trip to Sweden, where Joe is set to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.
“I am I plus my surroundings, and if I do not preserve the latter, I do not preserve myself” Joe quotes to friends and media at a party, and it’s evident from the outset how true he believes this to be. Along with the indispensable Joan, who is ever beside (and slightly behind) him as they greet guests, Joe is flanked by his pregnant daughter Susannah (Alix Wilton Regan) and son, the aspiring writer David (Max Irons). They’re his perfect family, and anyone who threatens to tarnish their image of perfection – whether it be the relentlessly prying journalist Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), or even his approval-seeking son – is quickly put in their place.
The quote applies to Joan as well. Once a promising writer herself, she abandoned her interest 40 years ago in order to support Joe’s career. Joan swears she’s no longer burdened by the “nuggets of bitterness” resulting from her decision to prioritise love over her ambitions and ability, but can we truly believe her?
The extent of her sacrifice is revealed through flashbacks and a memorable casual-drink-turned-interview with Bone, but the true revelation is Close. Subtle and spellbinding, this is the performance of her career. While her Joan seems outwardly willing to play the role of doting, docile wife, slight gestures – a slowly fading smile, a flicker in her eyes – warn of a cracking facade.
Close’s performance allows The Wife to transcend its cliches and appeal to a broader audience than the older generation of viewers it’s otherwise tailored for. There’s an honesty here, and a tragedy, that speaks to a feeling anyone who’s ever believed their lives driven by a singular passion knows too well.
That’s not to say she is the only reason to see the film. Pryce too is at the top of his game. Viewers of Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip will see shades of the destructive self-absorption that defined Ike Zimmerman, his character in that film. While Joe too often feels like a parody of literary greats rather than a compelling and conflicted figure in and of himself, Pryce’s calm brilliance breathes depth into him.
Nevertheless, it is Close who defines the film, and who audience members will be discussing as they exit the cinema. By the time Joe and Joan’s secret is revealed, it comes as no surprise, but viewers won’t mind. It is not the secret, after all, that defines the wife, or The Wife.
The Wife opens in Australian cinemas on August 2nd.