Director: Björn L. Runge
Writer: Jane Anderson; based on The Wife by Meg Wolitzer
Cinematographer: Ulf Brantås
Producer: Rosalie Swedlin, Meta Louise Foldager, Piers Tempest, Piodor Gustafsson, and Claudia Bluemhube
by Jon Cvack
For some odd reason the Best Actress nominees always contain at least one obscure film that no one’s really seen - in 2013 it was Judi Dench in Philomena, in 2014 it was Julianne Moore in Still Alice (where she went on to win; though to this day, beyond my mother, I cannot name anyone I know personally who has seen this film), in 2016 it was Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins (which I didn’t even remember as a film, let alone a nominee) and Isabelle Huppert in Elle, and while last year seemed a bit more mainstream, this year followed the tradition, nominating Glenn Close in The Wife; though the film received some wings after Close went on to win the Golden Globe.
It seemed like an interesting story, but abiding by awards protocol, I didn’t look up the synopsis before checking it out. The film opens in 1980 with an elderly married couple, Joseph (Jonathan Pryce) and Joan Castleman (Glenn Close) after Joe grabs a sugary late night snack before returning to bed, nervous for some news that awaits him. Finishing the bite of food, he leans over to Joan and starts rubbing her vagina in the hopes of getting a screw in before passing out again. The chemistry between the two is charming, as they both appear to love each other and limit their filters; providing the archetype of what you hope to have with a partner in old age. Thus, while weird and unromantic, Joe’s attempt at seduction isn’t entirely strange. Not yet.
The next morning he receives a call, notified that he’s won the Nobel Prize in literature, and like a school boy, he jumps on the bed, singing, “I won the Nobel. I won the Nobel.” It’s this pronoun which will play an important role later on.
Joan and Joseph have a small gathering the next day where the New York Times arrives, ready to put him on the front page of their culture section. They’re joined by their aspiring writer son David (Max Irons) who’ll accompany them at the awards and their pregnant daughter Susannah (Alix Wilton Regan) who can’t join them on the flight to Switzerland.
Aboard the plane, Joe flirts a bit with the stewardess and is later approached by a sleazy writer Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater) who hopes to write a biography on Joseph; far from the first time he’s asked for cooperation, and denied once again.
They arrive to grand fanfare, as the cultural and intellectual elite fawn over Joseph and his work. He introduces his wife to the men, who ask if she writes and Joseph says no; fearing that it’d cause him great writer’s block. Things have grown increasingly salty between Joseph and Daniel as Daniel has written his first short story, which Joseph either hasn’t read or hasn’t enjoyed, and with limited input from the man he idolizes, Daniel grows increasingly frustrated and upset; managing his anger by smoking cigarettes, which provides the only criticism from his father.
The story is intercut with a flashback to 1958 where a middle aged Joseph (Harry Lloyd) is a creative writing teacher at an unspecified Ivy League school, providing notes to his student Joan (Annie Starke) as he sits on his desk, hovering over her, crushing a walnut and offering her a piece, propositioning her in all but words. It soon leads to an affair which causes him to leave his wife Carol. Later, during a faculty party, one of the female alumni writers presents her latest book to the college and Joseph introduces her to Joan. The writer explains to her that she should stop writing as the male dominant publishing industry just doesn’t care about female writers and Joan will be doomed for a lifetime of disappointment.
Back to present, Joseph goes through the formalities of rehearsals and meet and greets, with Joan always at his side, telling him when he has crumbs in his beard and when to take his pills. For reasons unknown, she asks Joseph to leave her out of the acceptance speech which shocks Joseph. The two argue and soon part ways, leaving Joseph all alone and soon flirting with a cute photographer a third of his age (at most). Joan heads out to a local bar where she meets Nathaniel who informs him that he has knowledge of Joan ghostwriting all of Joseph’s work; mostly supported by reading both Joseph’s early stories and her own, which bear an uncanny resemblance to Joseph’s popular work.
We thus learn that due to male dominant profession, Joseph had been a hack writer, and that Joan, who had connections as an assistant at a publishing agency in need of their “own Jewish writer”. When Joseph turns in the first draft, Joan breaks the news that it’s not all that great, but that she can fix it, and if he’s willing, the two can act as collaborators.
Returning back drunk and smelling of cigarettes, Joseph flips out, demanding to know where she was. Joan then finds a walnut which Joseph had autographed for the younger photographer after the two nearly kissed; accusing him of wanting to fuck another woman like he had done at least a few times prior; always forgiven in order to retain the relationship.
Soon Daniel learns the news from Nathaniel and confronts his father, who denies the allegations, supported by Joan, all just minutes before they head off to the awards ceremony, where counter to Joan’s wishes, he mentions her specifically in his acceptance speech. She storms off and Joseph follows, and Joan finally unleashes the resentment she’s been holding in for the last four or so decades; getting back to the hotel room where she says she’s leaving him. Joseph then has a heart attack and dies.
Not knowing anything about the film, there was a peculiar thrill to watch the information unravel. Having watched Glenn Close’s Golden Globes speech, I knew the film had something to do with a woman living in a man’s shadow. The only issue I had is why now, of all places, when both a random biographer and their son find out the truth, did Joan suddenly feel the need to leave him?
I grasp the concept of a self-centered writer, obsessed with their work and the ego it could provide. Joan was a writer who simply wanted to communicate their art, and for a lifetime, has been fine with the arrangement the two had. The only frustration she seems to utter is that she was enraged when Joseph refused to say she also wrote to some of the press; preventing her from possibly having some of her own stuff looked at and published.
And yet when you unravel the logic a bit, there seem to be a few contradictions; arguably deliberate by the writer, but which I think the film might have missed. Namely, why Joan couldn’t just ask Joseph to admit the truth; that the two have actually written all of the material together; with Joan doing the bulk of the work while Joseph edited (or however it worked). At the end of the day, the work which has been so revered would continue to be, and with fans wanting more, what difference does it make where it came from; especially if it’s half of the lifetime partnership Joan and Joseph shared.
At points in the film, particularly during the flashback, it seems like the two fully understand the relationship. It’s far from ideal and obviously offensive to Joan, but at least she could live the creative life that she wanted to. At one moment, upon learning of the first book being published, and countering the opening scene, they jump on the bed, shouting “We’re getting published. We’re getting published.” Though it’s never shown, it’s easy to surmise that Joseph got carried away with his fame; in which his own insecurities led him to cheat on Joan - perhaps out of raw desire, or as hinted at by Nathaniel and Joan’s conversation, to compensate for his own creative shortcomings.
In a confusing scene given Glenn Close’s speech and the Bonus Feature interview, she said that Joan didn’t love Joseph, and that her final declaration when Joe was dying was simply based on his selfish manipulation; what else could she possibly say? Yet what I saw was far more nuanced. In one scene, during their final brawl as Joan is walking out, Joseph mentions how he had to be the one who cooked, cleaned, and raised the kids while Joan got to spend eight hours a day being creative. So often we see the flip of this scenario, in which the woman serves the man’s dream at the cost of her own well-being. And by doing so, the two have been able to have the mansion on the beach and travel the world. Thus, rather than fighting to change the system by announcing their arrangement and pointing out the injustice, Joan rather retains the secret, leaving him, and all her passion behind.
It seems like the film seems to miss this part, as Joan later goes on to talk about having to preserve Joe’s pill schedule, his endless flirting and philandering, and keeping the crumbs out of his beard. But it doesn’t make Joe’s point any less valid. Joan has a right to be angry at the system, and yet the arrangement she had with the man she loved seemed to provide both people what they want (all infidelity aside). Both were driven by selfish intention; Joe for the writer’s life and Joan’s for the need to express herself forever on. Throughout the film, we learn that a writer needs to write in order to preserve their soul, or however the quote goes).
I’m left wondering why all of a sudden Joan felt the need to leave him. On the one hand, she’s had too much, even though all he did was flirt with an early twenty year old girl who clearly had some issues, and then mentioned Joan in his acceptance speech. On the other, her work has achieved the praise she desired. She won the most coveted and highest award in literature, and only now is she feeling self-righteous enough to give it all away; all because some two-bit biographer might spill the beans and had already told her son what Daniel might he likely had known all along. In one scene, we hear as the children cry and beg to see their mother, as Joseph and the nanny are forced to shut the door, console them, and leave her alone. In the closing image, we see her open a blank page, empowered to write and possibly reveal all that transpired. There is no side to pick. Like any great story, the morals are complex and leave you thinking about it for hours.
BELOW: Definitely deserved the statue
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