The Wife

Dir: Bjorn Runge
Screenplay: Jane Anderson; based on the novel by Meg Wolitzer
Cast: Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Christian Slater, Annie Stark, Max Irons, Harry Lloyd
100 mins; Sweden/ USA/ UK 2018
Watched by: Ismay and Sarah

Early one morning, when novelist Joseph Castleman and his wife Joan are still in bed, the phone rings. It’s Stockholm. Castleman has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. From there it all begins to unravel in this gripping, suspenseful, and at times very funny film.

Joe (Jonathan Pryce) has won the Prize. But Joan (Glenn Close) has written the novels. His would-be biographer Nathaniel Bone (good name!; played by a wonderfully insinuating Christian Slater) has begun to suspect the truth. And Joe’s would-be writer son David (Max Irons) really really hates him. Off they all go to Sweden.

Was it credible, Ismay and I discussed later, that a young woman would give up her own writing to write under her husband’s name? It was the early 1960s. The young Joan needs to write; she wants to be read; she is profoundly shy and hates being the centre of attention; and publishers don’t want books by women. A brief flashback shows three male editors trashing as too ‘soft’ a manuscript submitted by a woman, and saying that what they want is to find the next big male writer, Jewish preferably. Joan, secretary and tea-girl, returns to Joe in their garrett …

What a jerk he is, we discover, this philandering ex-professor of writing! With his creepy seduction techniques (the same James Joyce quote rolled out every time), his creepy need to control. Why has she stayed with him? Well, Glenn Close makes it both credible, and interestingly complex.

Jonathan Pryce and Glenn Close are really terrific as the couple, forty years after the first novel came out, fighting their way towards a final showdown amidst the formality, the ceremony, and the general anxious politeness of the Nobel organisers.

Who would have thought that a film about the final unravelling of a marriage built on forty years of lies and coercion could be so gripping and so funny? And vivacious, in a way that that other film about the end of a long marriage, 45 Years, couldn’t manage. (Weirdly, tho, the one false note struck here, when Joan, a long-term non-smoker, lights up with biographer Nathaniel Bone in the bar, echoes Charlotte Rampling and the unconvincing smokes that she has in the earlier film. Ismay has just told me of something else she found unconvincing: if Joan has spent eight hours a day every day behind a closed door writing Joe’s novels for him – such that their children barely get to see her – how come the kids love her so much as a good mother? But although the backstory does have some credibility holes in it, maybe it doesn’t matter. It’s the angry ‘now’ that this is about.)


2 thoughts on “The Wife

  1. In some ways I actually thought all the stuff about the Nobel was almost incidental. What struck me was the way that time had bound the two of them together. The identity of each was defined by the marriage which made it so difficult to break out of it. And then at key moments – like the birth of a grandchildren and his heart attack – they were close again.


    • Thanks, Diana, yes, Ismay and I agree with you, although yours is a different take on it from ours, an interestingly different take … Don’t people say that other people’s marriages always resist understanding, anyway?!


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