The opening scene of The Wife sees Joan (played by Glenn Close), the wife of author Joseph Castleman (played by Jonathan Pryce) asleep in bed. He’s clearly anxious as he awaits an important phone call, noisily munching on a biscuit, which wakes her. When the call comes through in the early hours of the morning the two are in bed at their seaside home in Connecticut. The year is 1992, and Joseph Castleman has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
With Joan “on the extension” (a phrase uttered no more in 21st-century life), Close’s face is a kaleidoscope of emotions almost indecipherable.
The camera’s focus on Close betrays The Wife’s end game. And while the film makes no bones about its feminist agenda, it had a very particular endgame in sight; Joan’s.
There is a supreme irony to the flashback scene in which a young Joan and Joseph are introduced (played by Annie Maude Starke and Harry Lloyd respectively).
Joseph, the pontificating professor tells a group of female students – including his future wife: “A writer writes because he has something personal to say.”
But for Joan, recognition from ‘the masses’ does not seem to be her end-goal.
The Wife heralds a uniquely personal brand of feminism
The Wife’s feminist standpoint is linked inseparably to Joan’s own character, to her particular wants and motivations and is, therefore, deeply personal and nuanced.
It may not be a brand of feminism which suits anyone else, but the movie will leave any woman feeling both vindicated and horrified, heaving a deep sigh – that familiar feeling settling into their bones.
A trenchant cameo from Elizabeth McGovern hammers the point home: “You’ll never get their approval. The men. The ones who decide who gets to be taken seriously.”
Given the breaks between flashbacks, this warning is set up to be what stops Joan in her tracks – what makes it possible for her husband to tell a Nobel laureate physicist: “My wife doesn’t write.”
“Thank god,” he adds.
Glenn Close mixes gravitas and fervour for an electrifying performance
Throughout the first third of the film, Glenn Close’s Joan simmers with a jealousy beneath her stoicism while her husband puffs up his chest and drops pithy epithets to the gliteratti of intellectuals.
The middle third sees Close frustrated by her surroundings, being lumped in with other doting wives, holding her husband’s jacket, checking his beard for crumbs.
By the final third simmering jealousy turns to boiling rage and the lid is blown off the pot of their lives.
Though it takes a while for Joan’s resentment to turn to explosive anger when it does you find yourself cheering for her triumph as she lays siege on her lifetime of playing second fiddle by stepping into first chair.
Joan plays the role of the dutiful wife well – even berating a pushy biographer (Christian Slater as the perfect journalist-cum-scum) when he confronts her with his knowledge of Joseph’s plentiful affairs:
“Don’t paint me as a victim,” Joan says. “I am much more interesting than that.”
Resentment and vindication make Close’s performance electric, her moments on screen practically vibrating with thinly but imperviously veiled emotion.
The Wife is in UK cinemas on September 28, 2018.