Kneel Before A Kingmaker: Our Review Of ‘The Wife

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - September 21, 2018
Kneel Before A Kingmaker: Our Review Of ‘The Wife

What’s the ideal relationship between an artist and their art? Is it better to put art out into the world by any means, or stay true to one’s vision and toil away in obscurity? These are a few of the questions director Björn Runge tackles in his film, The Wife. Runge brings together two world-class actors and lets their characters work through the script’s sophisticated themes. The result is a penetrating look into marriage, compromise, and gender politics, fueled by a commanding performance from one of this generation’s finest actresses.

 Joe (Jonathan Pryce) and Joan Castleman (Glenn Close) are an old married couple who seem to have it all. Married for decades, they have two adult children, and Joe is a world-renowned author. The story picks up early one morning when Joe gets a life-changing phone call from the Nobel committee who select him to receive a Nobel prize for literature. With a grandchild on the way and a trip to Helsinki in their future, it looks like the Castleman’s life can’t get any better. But as soon as they board their plane, their marriage starts unravelling.

The Wife

A pesky biographer (Christian Slater) keeps imposing himself on the Castleman family until Joan finally relents and speaks with him. He alleges that Joe’s isn’t the writer he appears to be, and Joan is the talent behind his success. Suddenly, the film casts the Castleman’s marriage in a new light. And when Joe should be revelling in his career highpoint, he’s forced to confront his deceitful past. Throughout the film, Runge cuts back to the late 50’s when the couple first met and shows how their relationship fostered Joe’s deceptive career.

The Wife isn’t the most cinematic film hitting theatres in 2018, but there are a few impressive visual flourishes. DOP Ulf Brantås isn’t seeking to wow the audience with fancy camera movements and moody lighting; everything he does feels functional and understated. There are a few striking moments, where the camera pulls back and soaks up the palatial luxury of the Castleman’s Swedish lodgings. It’s here where Mark Leese’s production design shines. I’ve never been to a Nobel Prize banquet, but I doubt they’re any more extravagant than the visual feast Leese puts on.

The Wife mostly consists of actors standing in tight quarters, engaged in revealing conversations. Many dialogue-heavy scenes come across as though you’re watching a play, with the most intense moments taking on a claustrophobic feel as the marital tension between Joan and Joe escalates. Runge’s straight-forward presentation works well in this instance. When you have talent like Close and Pryce headlining your film all one needs to do is point the camera, yell action, and stay out of their way.

If you’ve paid attention to Close’s career, it’s no surprise that she remains on top of the game. While she doesn’t receive the same prominent roles as some of her contemporaries, when given the right one, she always delivers the goods. With Joan, Close gives a subtle performance driven by the resentment simmering below her character’s surface. Joan sidelined her career in service of her husband’s and done so with an unwavering smile. As the bitterness rises up, the fractures and cracks reveal themselves through her façade. Close is a master at showing what Joan feels with only a cutting look, the turn of her head, or a downturned gaze. But she’s no wilting rose either and watching Close raise her voice and unload on her ungrateful husband provides the film’s standout moments.

The Wife

The Wife would make an excellent double feature with Wash Westmoreland’s recent picture, Colette. Colette tells a similar story about a man riding his wife’s coattails to fame and riches. What’s notable about these films isn’t their obvious themes, which don’t state anything audiences didn’t already know. We all realize women face an uphill battle to be seen as equals  I hope. What stands out in The Wife is how easily society downplays womens’ talents, stifles their creative voices, and nudges them into subservient roles.

Joe stumbles into his successful career by meeting Joan, and he lurches up the success ladder despite his lack of talent. Joe accumulates a careers-worth of undeserved praise, and it takes decades before anyone calls out his peculiar career arc. Had the roles been reversed, people would question Joan’s success right from the jump. People would poke, prod, and dissect her work the moment she landed on a best-sellers list. She wouldn’t make it through her first press conference before someone asked if her husband’s influence boosted her career. The Wife shows us how being a man comes with a default level of credibility while revealing the insidious privileges that comes with being a white male artist.

Runge has crafted a trenchant drama that addresses timely themes; an attentive commentary on gender dynamics and self-compromise, and also a captivating watch. The Wife’s plot doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, but the riveting performances keep you from caring. Who has time to nitpick at the Castleman’s improbable lives while watching peak-level Glenn Close? The magic of the role is that the depth of her nuanced performance only reveals itself on a second viewing.

This post was written by
Victor Stiff is a Toronto-based freelance writer and pop culture curator. Victor currently contributes insights, criticisms, and reviews to several online publications where he has extended coverage to the Toronto International Film Festival, Hot Docs, Toronto After Dark, Toronto ComiCon, and Fan Expo Canada. Victor has a soft spot in his heart for Tim Burton movies and his two poorly behaved beagles (but not in that order).
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