What is the price of a symbiotic relationship between two fiercely talented individuals, both writers, one vain, famous and impatient and the other self-effacing, graceful and tenacious? What if they have been married for 40 years?
In Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel The Wife, such a relationship is on a slow boil. The anguish builds up stealthily in the woman who slogs so that her husband’s ideas fructify, but goes unacknowledged in public. But she has a family, and a cause in her husband. That anguished person is the wife of a celebrated American author, which actor Glenn Close plays with clarity and adroitness in the book’s cinematic adaptation by Swedish director Bjorn Runge.
We meet Close’s character, Joan Castleman, and her husband, Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), in their bed. They are woken up by a call from Stockholm, and Joseph insists that Joan pick up the other phone to listen in. Joseph is informed of the Nobel committee’s decision to award him with the Nobel for Literature (it’s set in the year 1992, and the Clintons are in power in America). The camera focusses on Joan, taking in the news. Her face is a muddle of excitement and resentment as well as melancholia. We know from there on something is not right in this marriage and partnership.
And so it is. Joan mediates a rocky relationship between Joseph and their son, David (Max Irons) and takes care of Joseph’s every little business. On their way to Stockholm to receive the prize, the couple and their son are stalked by a journalist, Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), who has an offer to write a biography of Joseph, “the greatest American writer of the 20th century”. Joseph’s wearisome habits and patterns come to the fore as we see Joan and him together at the Nobel ceremony.
The story goes into flashback to the 1950s and ’60s, in which Annie Starke (Glenn Close’s real-life daughter) and Harry Lloyd play the couple. Joan is a budding writer and Joseph is her professor. In this era, American academia and publishing have virtually no women because, as a bristling writer of the day, Elaine Mozell (Elizabeth McGovern), tells the reticent but purposeful Joan, “Don’t ever think that you can get their attention…the editor, the critic, the publisher, the men who decide who gets to be taken seriously.” Joan internalises that warning for life.
Runge’s tautly plotted film is focussed on the characters and their dialogue, which is almost as in a play. The Wife isn’t particularly dedicated to cinematic form or visual flourishes. Jonathan Pryce efficiently brings out the fragile vanity of Joseph, his constant dependence on his wife and fussy concerns about the well-being of the family. Others in the cast, such as Slater with his character’s sharpshooting sliminess, contribute to the drama that seems contrived in many parts.
Glenn Close is the show-stealer of this film, and rightly so. Her long career has been about playing characters with complexity and shades. In Joan, Close uses her ability to do physically little with her face and yet convey many emotions with perfection. She gives her character her pain, her conviction and her defiance without any obvious tricks.
Joan asks her husband not to mention her in his acceptance speech because she doesn’t want to be seen as the one who has made all the sacrifice. “I am more interesting than that,” she says. By that point in the film, it isn’t clear to what extent she has contributed to her husband’s celebrated legacy. By the film’s last shot, it is, however, clear how supremely interesting Joan is, and is going to be, as we imagine the story going further.