The Wife opens on Joan Castleman waking up in the wee hours of the morning to find her husband, Joe (Jonathan Pryce), munching on an unhealthy snack. She reprimands him, telling him to go to sleep. But he can’t because he’s just so nervous for a particular phone call. To help him fall asleep, he suggests they have sex and, as Joan protests, he says that she can just lie there. What a realistic and uncomfortable look at married life. The Wife aims to expose these moments found in long term relationships and how they force women to assume a stereotypical role of caregiver, while also stifling them.
Joe was waiting for a phone call to tell him that he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. He is elated at the news and so is Joan, at least on the surface. Following the news is a flurry of parties where Joe is the center of attention, with Joan flitting on the periphery, taking care of everything, hiding from the spotlight. But there is something inside of Joan that is hesitant about this news, a tension that is building inside of her with each camera flash, compliment, and toast to Joe. As they travel to Sweden for the award presentation, the tension builds and builds and builds as Joan becomes a glorified coat rack. Adding to the tension is biographer Nathaniel Bone, played by a sleazy Christian Slater, who is poking the fire burning behind Joan’s eyes. Joan is done being subservient to her husband and having her creativity stifled. But can she break free from the role she has so long been assigned to?
The Wife, directed by Björn Runge, confronts the patriarchal expectations of women in relationships with men: they are caregivers. Subtle shots show Joan putting out Joe’s pills, making sure he has his glasses, and even holding his coat during a photo opp. She is there to take care of him because he cannot care for himself, a disturbing and upsetting reality that many women can relate to. And when Joan is able to take even a few hours to herself, Joe interrogates her and yells at her even in the face of his own indiscretions. Joan’s own creativity has been hidden and stifled for over 40 years of marriage, and yet she stays with her cheating, rude husband.
This is a frustrating point of the film: why does Joan stay with such a piece of garbage? Just when it looks like she’s about to leave, they come back together. It seems so unnecessary and masochistic, but how is that any different from how couples interact today? People stay together out of habit, necessity, duty, even in the face of infidelity and disrespect. The Wife captures this frustration and the contempt that it breeds over decades of marriage.
This is Glenn Close at her prime as she expertly plays the repressed and quietly-rage filled role of Joan. As Joe profusely thanks her for her unwavering support throughout his illustrious career, the camera lingers on her face, a face that remains stoic with flickers of anger and frustration. She knows these endless thank yous are empty, performative, a way to make him seem personable and a man who truly loves his wife. She is able to portray this role with ease and a kind of pain that finds it way into your heart like a freshly sharpened blade. She translates the feeling of stifling cloth of patriarchy pressed to your face in a subtle yet relatable way that makes you feel suffocated.
The Wife utilizes flashback scenes to provide some context about the history of Joe and Joan’s relationship. He was her professor, married with a child, which indicates the kind of man Joe is. It also establishes the power dynamic between the two that has existed from the very moment they met. However, these flashback scenes feel misplaced. While they do provide some necessary context, these scenes feel like nothing a few sentences of dialogue couldn’t provide.
Anyone in a troubled relationship, or has witnessed one through their parents or close family members, will feel The Wife deep in their bones. It is a painful glimpse into the effects of patriarchy and how it poisons a marriage, and even one’s children. This point wouldn’t be made quite so powerfully without Close’s stunning performance as Joan. Get ready, because she is coming for that Oscar.