You ever have one of those stretches where you feel like every time you go to the movies you see the same trailer over and over again? I had that recently with the theatrical trailer for The Wife, which seemed to be in front of every independent or foreign film I saw in the last three to four months. I’m actually not sure if I consider this to be a great trailer or a terrible trailer. On one hand it’s a remarkably efficient trailer, one that lays out the film’s plot and themes in a very economical way for a two minute piece, on the other hand maybe economically laying out a film’s message isn’t such a good thing if you want people to buy tickets to the full thing. Indeed, watching the trailer I was in some ways less interested in seeing the movie, not because it didn’t look interesting but because the trailer made me feel like there wasn’t much left to see. There weren’t any “spoilers” in it exactly but it gave me a pretty good overlay of what the film was like, what its argument and moral was going to be, and I had a pretty good hunch as to where it was going and how it was going to play out. There was however one much described aspect of the film which the trailer wasn’t going to give me: Glen Close’s performance. That performance is a big part of why the film is being talked about so in the end I did decide to give the full film my time.
The film begins with an aged couple in bed waiting on a phone call, when that call comes the couple hear the news they’ve been waiting for their whole lives: the husband, an acclaimed author named Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), had been selected as that year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. His wife, Joan Castleman (Glenn Close), is thrilled to hear this and the two start jumping up and down on their bed chanting “I won the Nobel! I won the Nobel!” Soon the two of them are on their way to Stockholm along with their adult son David (Max Irons), who is also an aspiring author, and while on the plane they are approached by a writer/journalist named Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater) who has been trying to write a biography of Joe for a while. Bone has been doing some research into Castleman’s past and has questions about him and his work, which could put a bit of a pall over his Nobel reception and the challenge the seemingly happy marriage between the two Castlemans.
The Wife is something of a rumination on that phrase “behind every great man is a great woman.” That’s a phrase I’ve always found a little strange. Are there no great men who were bachelors? Or great men who were gay? Or great men with not so great wives who held them back? And what of the great women? Were there always great men behind great women or did that phrase only go one way? Even in the exact situation that the phrase was intended to refer to the phrase always seemed a little condescending, is it suggesting that what makes a woman great is merely their ability to give moral support and the like to the right man? Isn’t that a little insulting to the great women who achieve greatness from actually doing great things instead of by proxy to great men? The title character here is certainly regarded as one of those “great women” behind a “great man” and she seems to embrace this role outwardly while clearly questioning it internally. We get flashbacks to her past in which she met her husband as a writing student and appeared to have a great deal of her own writing skill, but this appears to have been put to the wayside as her husband became an acclaimed novelist.
Those flashback scenes are some of the film’s weakest, in part because they work in a lot of rather unsubtle shorthand to explain how Joan was discouraged because of her gender and also because the actors in these scenes are nowhere near as strong as Close and Pryce, but I still would have liked more of them as that seems to be where the real explanation for the film’s central mystery of “why did this lady let herself become sidelined” lies. Female authors certainly were facing a great number of disadvantages in the late 50s as they do now but they were hardly unheard of and Mrs. Castleman never even seemed to run into a glass ceiling so much as she never even tries to run at all. Then there’s her jerk husband, a man who certainly goes through the motions of gratitude while generally behaving like a narcissistic asshole who had multiple affairs while rarely acknowledging her talents. At one point during an argument he shouts at her something along the lines of “if I’m so awful why did you marry me?” She doesn’t really have an answer for this and I’m not sure the movie does either. Close’s character certainly seemed to have “outs” that she didn’t take and she does bear at least some responsibility for her lot in life.
I’m not the biggest fan of a twist the film presents in the third act which places the husband in even lower regard than he was previously. If we are to deconstruct the idea of the “male genius” I think it’s probably best to at least acknowledge the “genius” part to make things a bit more difficult. The film tries to sidestep this and ends up simply asking other less interesting questions in the process. The film is also I think a bit guilty of concentrating all of its energies on a few places, namely its central performances, at the expense of other elements. I did not like Max Irons as the son of the film’s central couple and found the scenes with the character to be rather poorly written and the actors playing the younger Castlemans during the flashbacks weren’t great either. Björn Runge also rarely brings the film to life with his visual style and the film rarely rises above the level of average in terms of pure filmmaking. Close’s performance is pretty damn good though and Pryce is also pretty great and while the screenplay isn’t always great it does still offer some food for thought. Ultimately I think I was kind of right about the trailer giving the audience most of what they needed from the movie, but it’s still a mostly worthy effort.
*** out of Five