Review: ‘The Wife’ playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox

Tension builds and old wounds are opened in one of Glenn Close’s best performances yet

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By: Sonia Scarlat

Swedish director Björn Runge’s English feature debut, The Wife, is nothing short of a revelation. It is a breath of fresh air in a sea of reboots and sequels and will likely be added to the growing parthenon of recently released, artistically successful Swedish films, begging the question: are we in the middle of a new wave?

From the jumping point of a tried and true cliché, the lack of marital bliss,  Runge creates a work that is fresh, poetic, and suspenseful. Based on Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel of the same name, the film concerns itself with the intricacies of married life, the lives of writers, and the issues of a woman whose achievements are overshadowed and engulfed by her husband’s pride. It is a large undertaking that pokes at the tensions of a long term relationship, one that spans over 30 years, without sinking into melodrama. However, Runge’s skillful direction coupled with some bravura performances (especially that of Glenn Close) allows for a realism that is simultaneously humorous, heart-breaking, and enraging.  

Glenn Close stars as Joan Castleman, wife of acclaimed writer John (Jonathan Pryce). They travel to Sweden accompanied by their adult son, where John is to receive the Nobel prize in literature, and here the action begins to unfold. The first scene gives us little in the way of character framing. All we see is an aging couple, comfortable with one another. It is not until the family receives phone call concerning John’s recent achievement that the codependency the two partners have built becomes clear. What ensues is a constant reinforcement of the pecking order – is it John or Joan who’s in control, or is it both? Two sides of the same coin, their names hinting at their intertwined nature as they struggle with what the Nobel prize means and what baggage it drudges up from the depths.

In a film where the audience’s understanding of the Castlemans’ relationship and of the central tension depends on what happened in their past, it is remarkable the ways in which this history is peppered into the plot. Nathanial Bone (Christian Slater, in a surprisingly well-cast role), aspiring biography author for the Castlemans, leads us to the first big clue. He won’t leave until he gets the rights to write his book, “warts and all”. But these warts aren’t tackled all at once. Through flashbacks, quick comments, and Close’s incredible reactions, the pieces begin to come together. A shocking revelation is made and everything is primed to fall apart in a near-final scene. During John’s acceptance speech, when the camera is focused on Close, the secret at the heart of the film gives its most forceful punch. If this scene doesn’t get Close the Oscar after six previous nominations, there really might be no justice left in the world.

Slowly, we learn that it is not John who penned the famous works worthy of the Nobel prize, but Joan. As a student of John’s at Smith’s College in 1958, she falls in love with him, elopes to New York, gets him a book deal, and then edits his novel, The Walnut, in such a way that it becomes an immediate success. Following this, she authors every other work, writing through the pain of John’s numerous infidelities and the magnitude of such a secret. Although a promising writer in her youth, she abandons the hope of ever being published herself due to the sexism of her environment. There’s just one problem with the implied sexism in Joan’s milieu– it demands that we suspend our disbelief  a little unfairly. By 1958, there were already some prominent female authors, pumped out from the very college Joan attends. One is Mary McCarthy, whose possible cameo as “Elaine” gets few of the facts right, downgrading her to a sort of ruined woman without success or family. Another point of contention is Sylvia Plath, one of the most illustrious female writers of the 20th century, who not only graduated from Smith College, Joan’s alma mater, but also published her own works at twenty years old and later returned to Smith as a professor in 1958. Wolitzer, who also briefly attended the famed college, could not have been unaware of her trajectory, especially as it concerns the very point she tries to make. Of course women faced challenges in the ‘50s, of course it was difficult to get published, of course they were expected to play their roles as wives and mothers. And this narrative is what drives the film, without it there would be no plot. But to completely omit these women whose lives were dedicated to their craft, who not only wrote because they “needed to” as writers, but who were read, and who would have been in the very same college as our protagonist, is to erase their contributions, much in the same way John erases Joan’s.

The former analysis is more of a gripe with the novel, rather than the film, which can and should be considered somewhat independently. The story itself is a masterful work, more of a dark comedy than a full-fledged drama. The tone is also reminiscent of Ruben Östlund’s recent works, The Square and Force Majeure. Considering both Östlund and Runge are Swedish, it seems that there is a new wave of filmmakers coming from the country. I think we should all be keeping an eye on Sweden’s future exports.

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