Bjorn Runge’s film, The Wife, is a complex, compelling and nuanced portrait of Joe and Joan Castleman, an elderly couple whose marriage is sorely tested by an unexpected telephone call in the dead of night and a glittering awards ceremony thousands of kilometres away from their home.
It’s 1992 and Joe (Jonathan Pryce), an acclaimed American Jewish novelist, is startled out of his sleep by a long-distance call from Stockholm. The voice at the other end informs him he’s the newest recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature. Joan (Glenn Close) rushes to another phone to listen in to their conversation. Holding hands, they bounce up and down on their bed in a joyous celebration of Joe’s stellar literary achievement.
Although it’s an incredible moment in their lives, they already have much to be grateful for. Their lovely daughter is pregnant with her first child, and their son, David (Max Irons), a handsome young man, is a fledgling writer who appears to have a promising future.
One big happy family. The facade, however, is deceptive.
Joe never fails to describe Joan as the love of his life and his muse. Joan, who attends to all his needs, seems to appreciate his fulsome compliments, yet something is amiss. Meanwhile, Max is in a foul mood because his father doesn’t have the time, or perhaps the inclination, to discuss his newest short story with him.
In a flashback to 1958, the younger Joe (Harry Lloyd) appears as a jaunty, self-confident professor of English at a university. He’s married and he and his wife have a baby daughter, but Joe has his eye on Joan (Annie Starke), one of his students. Smart and attractive, she loves and admires him. Breaking his marriage vows, he has an affair with her.
Fast-forwarding to the present, the camera pans on Joe and Joan as they prepare to fly to Sweden, where Joe will accept the Nobel prize from the king himself. En route to Stockholm, Joe is approached by Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), who desperately wants to write his biography. Annoyed by his jarring presence, Joe treats him rudely. Joan is far more polite, but she rejects Nathaniel’s overture.
In Stockholm, portrayed as a bleak city in winter, Joe and Joan are pampered by a fawning assortment of officials and aides. Joe can hardly take his eyes off Linnea (Karin Franz Korlof), a pretty photographer who’s been assigned to follow him around.
Further flashbacks flesh out Joe’s relationship with Joan when they were younger.
Immensely talented herself, she becomes his writing companion after telling him his prose requires fixing. He’s devastated by Joan’s searingly candid critique, but comes to terms with it pragmatically. Behind closed doors, she edits his manuscripts.
As Joe starts to read his acceptance speech in Stockholm before a star-studded assembly of notables, he pauses momentarily before proceeding to praise Joan. The muscles on her face tighten as he continues to honor her. The audience applauds. In a huff, she leaves their table, with Joe right behind.
It’s a remarkable scene, signifying Joan’s self-suppressed anger, resentment and probable jealousy. Joan has had enough of the lies and Joe’s extramarital affairs. She can’t hold back her volatile emotions.
Thirty two years after her stunning turn as a temptress in Fatal Attraction, Close delivers a superb performance as a long-suffering wife who has selflessly buried her ambitions in the interests of serving her husband. She certainly deserved this year’s Golden Globes award for best actress. Pryce, too, is excellent as her partner.
Runge directs The Wife — based on Meg Wolitzer’s novel — with aplomb. It’s a riveting and satisfying movie with myriad twists, turns and surprises.