A movie can sometimes be really well done and still be a film you never want to see again. Such is the case with “The Wife.”
Some are calling this movie the performance of Glenn Close’s career, and that’s perhaps justified. Close is a master at her craft, and this film showcases it.
Close plays Joan, the wife of a Nobel-winning author. Her husband, Joe (Jonathan Pryce), has been churning out books for decades, and he’s about to be recognized for his work and effort. But, there’s something not quite right. The interactions between the duo is uncomfortable at times, and it’s in these exchanges where Close shines.
We discover early on that Joan wrote fiction when she was young. She met Joe in college; he was her professor. He was also a professor with a lack of writing talent and an unhappy marriage. Joan, though, was young, impressionable and oh-so-talented. She became his devoted pupil and lover, while he became the center of her every focus. Forty-plus years later, Joe’s winning his big award, and we’re told Joan doesn’t write anymore. While Joe eats up all the attention, Joan plays the part of the devoted wife and mother. But, something’s off.
There’s a subtle rage that plays just below Joan’s surface. She plays her part, and she says all the right things, but her eyes betray her. Her mouth tightens, her breath catches ever so slightly with each “congratulations” she hears. Over and over, she watches Joe accept praise from adoring fans. She must sit idly by as he flirts with any female that crosses his path. Joe is a pompous ass, a cheater and top-tier narcissist, but yet, our gut tells us there’s something more to this story.
Joe and Joan are hard to watch. He’s the type of man who expects to be adored, catered to and waited on. We see a brief interaction between young Joe (Harry Lloyd) as he tells his wife to fetch his tie as she’s trying to tend to their young baby girl. “It’s on the bed,” she tells him, and it’s not news to him. He just doesn’t want to do it himself. Wife No. 1 throws it to the floor in front of him, and young Joan (Annie Maude Starke) picks it up, folding it before handing it to him.
Well, it must be love, y’all.
Their entire relationship functions like this. Joe is rude to someone, and Joan apologizes for him. Joe cheats on her, and Joan excuses it. Joe suppresses Joan’s talent, and she lets him. Over and over again, we watch as Joe abuses the love and dedication given to him so freely.
There’s a moment between young Joe and Joan where she tells him she doesn’t like the story he’s written, and he threatens to leave her. Seriously. She talks him down, telling him he’s her life and she just couldn’t go on without him. I just threw up a bit. Sorry if you did, too.
The relationship between Joe and Joan is painful to watch. There are only a few flashbacks to the young lovers, and much of the story is told in present day as Joe and Joan fly to Switzerland with their son, David (Max Irons), who is also an aspiring writer. In case you were curious, Joe’s life doesn’t include wife No. 1 or his first-born child. He moved on to a new life with Joan completely and left his past — and family — behind him.
Joan isn’t blind to Joe’s faults or the fact that she deserves better. She’s just given up her entire life, passion and possible career for the man she fell in love with all those years ago. She made her choice; and while her life isn’t what she wished it to be, it’s the choice she made and she must honor it. It’s not a foreign concept, and honestly, it could be the story of plenty of real-life couples. How many people stay together simply because they’re supposed to rather than they’re happy? One character I’ve forgotten above is Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), who has attempted unsuccessfully to be Joe’s official biographer. At first glance, he appears to be the chaotic source that will bring about the film’s main conflicts. That’s at first glance, though. There’s a lot of good drama here, and it’s done in an effective, organic way where characters — and not the script’s whims — decide what will happen.
Anyway, “The Wife” is an artful movie that will not disappoint. It’s beautifully written and acted, but at its core is an incredibly heartbreaking story that’s difficult to watch. I’m glad I saw Close in what may be a career-defining role, but this will be a one-time viewing for me. I’m not sure my heart could take it a second time.