The Wife Review: A poignant, sensitive drama
A poignant and brutally honest examination of a spouse’s place in literary success and the lack of respect accorded to women writers, that asks all the right questions
The long-suffering spouses of literary giants, and their stories of sacrifice and woe are documented proof that greatness affects not just the life of the person it belongs to, but those of their better halves (and families) too. Through the ages, literature has been rife with such examples: Sophia Tolstaya, Leonard Woolf, Safia Manto, the many wives of Ernest Hemingway, Adele Morales (the second of Norman Mailer’s six wives, whom he stabbed with a penknife after a party in 1960), Véra Nabokov… Many of them took ton the burden of substance abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, and infidelity, to further their celebrated partner’s career ambitions. While Véra Nabokov does not quite fit this mould, it is a well-known fact that she played the many roles of editor, translator, reader, muse, chauffeur, and wife, to the acclaimed Russian writer.
Director: Björn Runge
Cast: Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Christian Slater, Max Irons, Annie Starke, Harry Lloyd, Elizabeth McGovern
It is important to note that Joan Castleman (Glenn Close) does not see herself in this light, and nor does she want others to perpetuate that stereotype. She may come across as a doting wife who manages her husband’s affairs with a smile, and she may appear to be at the corner of the frame at all times (as her literary superstar spouse soaks in the adulation of critics and admirers alike), but do not be fooled; she is her own person. There are a few small but crucial scenes early on in The Wife that make this apparent. When her husband, Professor Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), is being interviewed in Stockholm in connection to the recent announcement of his Nobel Prize in Literature, she tells journalists that she is not one of those sacrificial literary spouses, nor does she wish to be portrayed that way. All this is done with much grace and poise, even as her hussband ends up attracting many a young woman with his brilliant words.
From the very beginning, there is a subtle expression on the older Joan’s face that never leaves her. The expression is a mixture of derision and indescribable sadness. And that look, when coupled with an attempt to smile with pride for her husband’s supposed success, is nothing short of heart-breaking. A key plot point in the first half lays bare all that needs to be said about the plight of female writers in a male-dominated literary environment. An acclaimed middle-aged female author reads from her book to the women of Smith College in 1958. A young Joseph Castleman (Harry Lloyd) introduces Joan (Annie Starke) as one of his most talented students. The brutal advice given is something to behold. She tells Joan not to ‘do it’ (meaning write). Taken aback, Joan asks her what she means. The writer, though kind, does not mince her words. She tells Joan that “you will never get their attention”; by ‘their’, she refers to critics, publishers, contemporaries – all men – who have the power to decide if a woman writer is to be taken seriously. When a stunned Joan quotes one of Joseph’s lectures (“a writer must write”), the middle-aged female author smiles a depressing smile, and says, “a writer must be read, honey.” This is perhaps the most powerful scene in The Wife, as it confronts the inherent sexism that has always pervaded literature.
The parts about the couple’s early years are not as effective as their older ones, simply because the performances of Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce outrank Annie Starke and Harry Lloyd by several notches. Regular tropes of a disgruntled child growing up in a literary environment and a pesky biographer foraging for the ‘real’ story of the Castlemans pervade the narrative, but the acting more than makes up for such clichés. Glenn Close carries every bit of the brilliance that is The Wife on her shoulders, fitting into her role seamlessly. While the character of Joseph Castleman is not your typical evil/manipulative genius riding on the actual talent of his spouse, there is no doubt that he is a terribly weak man lacking even basic moral courage. Two standout scenes that will remain with me for many years to come include: the look on Joan’s face when Joseph tells his fellow Nobel laureates that his wife “does not write”, and when Joan responds to the King of Sweden (when he asks her about her contribution to Joseph’s success) with the words, “I am a King-maker.”