By Preston Wilder
It appears to be an open secret at the Oscars, judging by the anonymous interviews that get published every year, that not all voters actually watch all the nominated movies. Maybe this explains last week’s biggest shock at the ceremony, viz. that Glenn Close (despite having previously won a SAG award and a Golden Globe and being certainly ‘due’, having now been Oscar-nominated seven times) unexpectedly lost the Best Actress race to Olivia Colman in The Favourite. It’s easy to imagine The Wife – a character drama without a strong plot (or at least a strong hook), directed by an unknown Swede, with no other nominations except Ms Close’s – slipping down voters’ list of priorities, to the point of not being seen at all. Even the title just kind of sits there, generic and unpromising.
One might expect this to be a rather flat drama animated by a single, tour de force performance – but in fact it’s a solid piece, and Close doesn’t even have the meatiest role. That goes to Jonathan Pryce as Joe Castleman, a well-known author who, as the film begins, gets woken up by a call from Stockholm in the middle of the night, letting him know that he’s won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Joe thoughtfully asks the man from the Nobel Foundation to wait, so that his wife Joan (Close) can listen on the extension, then jumps up and down on the bed with her yelling “I won the Nobel!” – but Joan abruptly stops laughing and climbs down, as if lost in thought. Is she just a bit joyless, the dutiful wife who’ll monitor his calls and check his beard for crumbs before meeting the press? Or is there something more going on?
“Please don’t paint me as a victim. I am much more interesting than that,” pleads Joan at one point – and the film agrees, warning against the obvious, rather clichéd feminist reading. Flashbacks confirm that Joan is a complex character: Joe was her teacher when they met in the late 50s (the film is set in the early 90s), and in fact she was also a fine writer – but then she met an older author who warned her against trying to make it as a woman in the publishing world (“A writer has to write”; “A writer has to be read, honey”), and gradually lost her self-confidence. “I didn’t have the personality for it,” she tells Nathaniel (Christian Slater), a rather sleazy biographer, trying to explain why she gave up a potentially brilliant career to become… well, the wife.
There’s a complex dynamic here, the woman whose secret resentment of her husband is actually a secret resentment of herself. A whole film might be built around this inner conflict, Joan’s lifelong, festering doubt over whether she was right to not even try. Unfortunately – or fortunately – The Wife goes for something more melodramatic, a long-buried family secret that upends everything we thought we knew. There is indeed a twist here, and it’s quite a juicy one. It’s too bad those Academy voters didn’t watch the film (if indeed they didn’t), they might’ve enjoyed it.
We don’t often see movies like The Wife, at least on the big screen. This is not just the usual lament about Hollywood caring only about special effects these days; serious-minded, Oscar-baiting films do exist – but they either go for bigger stories (often dealing in historical personages), or lean hard on visual, directorial style, like Roma and The Favourite at this year’s Oscars. The Wife has no style to speak of. It’s a plain, tasteful, mid-budget drama, with an emphasis on performance and the kind of conspicuously ‘crafted’ dialogue where you often spot the writer (Jane Anderson, adapting a novel by Meg Wolitzer) putting lines in the characters’ mouths in order to move the scene forward: “He’s already ruining my night with his bullshit!”; “Is it, though?”; “Is it what?”; “‘Your’ night.” Pryce and Close apparently rehearsed around a table for a week before shooting began, which is all very admirable – but what kind of film do you prepare for by rehearsing around a table? Not a very cinematic one, that’s for sure.
And what of Glenn Close? Was she robbed? Hard to say, but it does feel like the script doesn’t do her any favours. Much of her performance is reactive (Pryce, as already mentioned, gets the showier role, the bombastic and foul-mouthed husband), making you wonder what lies behind Joan’s slightly suppressed quality – then, just as her inner life should emerge in the final act, it gets hijacked by the Big Twist and she’s reacting once again. Still, it’s a skilful turn, totally worthy of a lifetime-achievement Oscar (which essentially is what it would’ve been) – and The Wife, too, is refreshingly different, the kind of quietly absorbing entertainment they used to make in the 90s. It deserves to be seen, and not just by Oscar voters.
DIRECTED BY Bjorn Runge
STARRING Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Max Irons
UK/Sweden/US 2017 99 mins