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The Wife

2018-08-23 18:18


When her husband, a famous, critically acclaimed author, is informed that he is to be the recipient of that year’s Nobel Prize in literature, Joan Castleman accompanies him to Stockholm to receive the prize but the trip quickly turns from celebratory into an existential crisis as she is forced to confront some of the biggest decision she has made in her life.


There is something dreadfully ironic about a film that spends an awful lot of time talking about the importance of creating realistic characters and believable plots in the crafting of a fictional story, when it itself falls prey to some very conspicuous plot-contrivances and characters who act in ways that strain credibility well beyond breaking point. This is an unforgivable, fatal sin for a film that is as purportedly “grown up” and “realistic” as The Wife clearly wants to be. And it’s such a pity too: the film gets so much right that it’s just crushingly disappointing to see how much less its whole is than the sum of its parts.

Glenn Close, for a start, has received universal acclaim for her work here and she clearly deserves every word of praise. Spending more time on the stage or on the small screen than in cinemas in recent years, Close hasn’t lost a step in bringing her prodigious talents to bear on a feature-film role. Mostly having to convey her character’s innermost turmoil with little more than the slightest gesture or intonation, she isn’t so much a revelation here as a living reminder of just how very, very good she has always been.

She is given more than ample support by the great Jonathan Pryce as her husband, Joe, who is a bit of a scoundrel, a bit of a cad and more than a bit arrogant but is probably the most joyous aspect of the film as he soaks in the adoration and accolades even as his wife spirals into existential doubt and loathing, both towards herself and her larger-than-life husband. Christian Slater is in fine, relatively subtle form as a reporter who asks all the right (or is that wrong?) questions in his effort to write an unauthorised biography on Joe. 

The performances, in general, are really very good and are probably the main selling point of The Wife. The only exceptions, really, are Harry Lloyd and Annie Starke as young Joe and Joan respectively: they’re fine but they are stuck in the shadow of two veteran actors at the top of their game and suffer further from not being entirely convincing as younger versions of these characters. It’s mostly iffy casting, but things certainly aren’t helped by how soap-operatic some of the flashback sequences they appear in are.

Spare a thought also for poor Max Irons who gets with what may well be this year’s most thankless role. As Joe and Joan’s whimpering, surly son who wants nothing more than his father’s approval, he is supposed to be well into adulthood but he is never written as anything other than an immensely annoying teenager. He gets plenty more to do than Alix Wilton Regan who, as their daughter, Joan, mostly gets to stay home and be pregnant but she is such a ray of sunshine in her few short appearances that after two minutes in her brother’s company, it’s impossible to not wish that they had traded roles – unlikely and anatomically difficult as that may well be. 

As should be clear by now, the film’s greatest missteps lie squarely in its screenplay by Jane Anderson, based on the novel by Meg Wolitzer. The problem isn’t so much that the screenplay – or original story, for that matter – is bad but that it is so frustratingly inconsistent. On the one hand, the film features some wonderfully caustic, often quite funny dialogue and at least a couple of beautifully observed moments of humanity between our central couple but, on the other, the second and third acts of the film are full of plot contrivances that are so noticeable you could almost see the gears grinding and character revelations that are just impossible to buy when you consider these characters’ lives beyond the scope of the few days in which the film takes place.

It’s impossible to discuss any of this without wading into heavy spoiler territory but I will say that though most of my fellow reviewers who were in the press screening with me clearly went with the entire film, I was starting to slowly lose patience with it by its mid-point and had all but entirely thrown in the towel after my eyes had nearly rolled clean out of their sockets with those third-act “twists” and character revelations. 

Unfortunately, established Swedish director, Bjorn Runge, does little to help matters. He is a perfectly fine director but his simple, unfussy style gets out of the way of the writing when, at times, it desperately needs to intervene. A slightly more melodramatic flare to the direction may well have softened the absurdity of some of the story revelations and made the whole thing feel a whole lot less unsure of itself in the process. 

As it is, The Wife is an ultimately disappointing, underwhelming and often frustrating work with flashes of greatness and mostly excellent performances. Glenn Close alone is almost enough to make you overlook the film’s weaknesses but there’s ultimately only so much that even she can do to paper over some glaring tonal and basic storytelling flaws.

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