Winning the Nobel Prize for Literature isn’t exactly the most relatable experience. Then again, the purpose of The Wife is not to be relatable, or even to alienate. Rather, the film aims to be a tight examination of a truly fascinating character.
Starring Glenn Close as the wife Joan to Jonathan Pryce as husband Joe, The Wife starts in the middle of the night. Joe is restless, and with good reason. In the wee hours, he’s awoken by a call from the Nobel committee telling him that he has won the 1992 Nobel Prize for his novels. Though the couple are not especially young, they’re giggly and jump on the bed in celebration. Their lives are about to change, and they’re looking forward to the new adventure.
The Wife then follows the couple as they travel to Stockholm for the ceremony, with son David (Max Irons) in tow, and an unauthorized biographer (Christian Slater) they just can’t seem to shake. It’s clear that Joe and Joan’s relationship is strong and long, but the power differential between the two of them causes rifts. Joe is a narcissist to the core, but that’s no surprise coming from such a talent. Joan is more than happy to support him in his professional triumph, basking in his glow from the sidelines.
If that were all there was to their story, The Wife would be predictable and dull. However, this is just what’s seen on the surface, and the film takes its time to explore what’s really going on here – how they met, the gender politics of their formative years, their relationships with their children. It gets messy.
Close delivers a reserved but powerful performance as the more restrained Joan. It’s a nice change of pace to see a strong woman on screen who defines and cultivates her own power, and isn’t concerned with what those around her think of her life. Strength can come in many forms, and Joan just might surprise you.
Though it’s easy to focus on the phenomenal performances and precise character construction, it must be mentioned that certain cinematic choices stop The Wife just short of greatness. As the pace of drama quickens throughout the film, clichéd visuals and an invasive score distract from the well-crafted emotional climaxes on screen. The snow and the grandeur of old Stockholm are enough of a backdrop already for the subtlety of the human condition. There should be some sort of moratorium on showing blank pages of a book, with heavy symbolism, in a film about a writer. We get it.
Thankfully, these missteps don’t detract from the central focuses of the film: Joan and her relationship to Joe. Their relationship carries The Wife into (near) greatness.