October 6, 2018 § 4 Comments
The opening scene of The Wife is a scene from a happy marriage: a couple in their 60s in bed together, awake in the middle of the night because he, the writer Joe Castleman, is full of nerves at the prospect of receiving or not receiving a morning call from the Nobel committee to tell him he’s won the prize for literature. They laugh and joke, attempt sex and laugh a bit more before sleeping. The call comes and it makes them even happier, both of them bouncing up and down on the bed, chanting ‘We’ve won the Nobel!’ before wife Joan calms down the boyish silliness and sensibly reminds Joe that the day ahead will be busy.
Joan is played by Glenn Close. She is the film’s centre and the camera’s darling – it never leaves her face alone, so that in close-up after close-up, we see the subtlety of her acting, the extraordinary eloquence of the eyes that even closed speak volumes, her mouth taking over to relay messages from them. I wondered why it was that though a Hollywood star, she has never starred in an outstanding film.
What do those eyes tell us? They intimate a range of feelings, but so insistent are the close-ups that we know they are suggesting a whole hidden narrative, and fairly soon we understand from them that not all is well between Joan and Joe (Jonathan Pryce), particularly once they reach their hotel in Stockholm and preparations begin for the grand awards ceremony. ‘I don’t want you to thank me in your speech’, she says.
By then we’ve seen the first of Joan’s memory-flashbacks to her youth – the film unfolds in 1994. In 1958 Joan was a young student at a college where Joe, already married, was her literature professor. He flirted with her and praised her writing talent. Next, they are married and Joe is writing a novel that Joan takes to the publishing house where she works. Small revelations unfold.
While in 1994 Joan displays impeccable wifely devotion, her quietly expressive face and her flashbacks nudge us towards an answer to what’s being hidden. Meanwhile, Joe’s importunate would-be biographer, Nathanial Bone (Christian Slater), drops heavy hints in the same direction, and David, the couple’s discontented son, blurts out his suspicions.
It struck me that what was being suggested, hinted at or openly suspected might just be a red herring, so obvious that something more complicated was bound to emerge.
Of course, I’m not supposed to give too much away, although I imagine that most of you reading this will have already seen the film. I’ll stick to what it might be implying about writers, male and female.
Women in the 19th century sometimes had to use male pseudonyms or resort to initials to get published; women in the mid-20th century were often viewed with condescension or contempt by the men who ran publishing; women in succeeding decades continued to be paid smaller advances than men and be less favourably reviewed (or not at all) by the men who populated review pages.
These days, when editors’ choices have been partially usurped by accountants and marketing people, one can assume that men still have the major say. In Britain, with the exception of Virago, the sundry feminist presses launched in the 1970s have disappeared (the only new arrival is the tiny, but admirably committed Silver Press, set up in 2016). Yet their influence has been long-lived. Publishing has always been harder for women, but it’s got better and better, and that’s because of the networks of writers, editors and readers that grew out of the women’s liberation movement and women’s increasing visibility in public life. The same goes for Nobel Prize winners in literature, with almost as many women laureates in these early years of the 21st century than in the whole of the 20th– an acceleration that started in the early 90s with Nadine Gordimer and Toni Morrison – though they still fall short of being 50%.
The film doesn’t enter into any of this history and it appears to conflate the two periods of its narrative, as if nothing had been achieved in between 1958 and 1994, either in publishing as an industry or through female authors’ perspective on the world. It shows us the young Joan (Close’s daughter, Annie Starke) at a literary event with the cartoonish figure of an ageing and embittered author (Elizabeth McGovern) who urges her to abandon her writing ambitions because women don’t get read. More than 30 years later the older Joan tells Bone that the writing life wasn’t for her because she’s shy and doesn’t like the limelight, while acknowledging that she has made sacrifices for her husband’s sake.
We do discover the precise nature of those sacrifices, but questions remain. What were the big ideas in Joe’s first book, ideas that the young Joan felt were beyond her talents? We’ll never know, nor do we know anything about the themes of his work, its perspective on the world. All we have is the Nobel speech with its eulogies to his insights and his prose style. The film is all broad strokes and emphatic signalling, without any meaningful detail.
There’s no interrogation of a marriage that, though conventional on the surface, could only practically function by other means. One line of dialogue made me laugh out loud: Joe’s, in the middle of a confrontation between the couple: ‘What about all the cooking, all the childcare…’– nicely ironic, but a role reversal that’s hard to disguise from the world at large, yet oddly unnoticed.
It’s hard to believe that the young Joan, already a woman of considerable strengths and maturity, could fall in love with a brash, insensitive and immature young man, and sustain 36 years of married life marred by his serial infidelities, while making such sacrifices for his benefit. An unlikely bargain.
So unlikely that The Wife could have been much more effective as a comedy.
Instead, we are in the realm of the nebulous and artlessly artificial. Visually, the film is uninteresting, which is of a piece with the shortcomings of the screenplay and its schematic progress, these partly saved by Close’s bravura acting and Pryce’s solid performance; they flesh it out into something we are meant to take seriously and they make it watchable, if ultimately unsatisfying.