Arriving very late to the party, I watched Björn Runge‘s Oscar-nominated contender last night, way past its cinema release date, online on HBO Go – and I’m pleased I did it, in the end. I’ve been circling around it for some time, not quite wanting to dive in. And now I know why. It’s both brilliant and infuriating.
Glenn Close as Joan is a magnificent melting iceberg, an environmental disaster long in the making, the wife of a soon-to-be Nobel laureate in literature, Joe Castleman (a perfectly slippery Jonathan Price) – a woman that signed a Faustian deal which has now reached its inevitable conclusion.
The Wife, based on a novel by Meg Wolitzer, adapted by Jane Anderson, was a stressful experience, as it would be for any woman artist, particularly a writer – or just any woman, period. The only way to approach its analysis (and I really wanted to unpack it), had to be through the prism of sheer raw emotion it conjured. Not wait for it to settle in. Make something out of it while its brought to boil. Like its protagonist did, time and again. For what is art other than a mirror?
The story, on the surface, could be read as the story of a long-suffering wife who reaches her limits – that’s the lazy review, missing the point by a mile. Or it could be rendered the story of a hand-maiden of the patriarchy gone rogue – that review might have a bit of subversive oomph, but in the end, it would only pay lip service to a certain type of politics, and still miss the target. I’m going for the story of a female Cyrano de Bergerac, of not feeling ‘beautiful enough’ for love or, in this case, not feeling you have the right set of sex chromosomes for success. As both the wife and the husband disturbingly define it early on – he’s the one with the big ideas, something to say, but she has ‘the golden touch’… As if the hand could touch without a head attached.
The high frustration the dynamics between the spouses caused caught me by surprise, as it was almost evenly distributed. I’d think my anger would be neatly reserved for the husband, and the establishment of his ilk that supported his ilk, but the sheer horror in beholding Joan’s choices, and what was at stake, what was sacrificed, and to what ends, and how casually common this was, even today, took me down. The unapologetic arrogance and slimy shallowness of the man that gladly accepts accolades for someone else’s ghost work seemed so much easier to process compared to the manipulative steeliness and nihilistic martyrdom of the woman who gets into the enterprise eyes wide open. The fact that Joan abhors being viewed as victim, as everything leading up to this point had been her decision to make, she believes, is as telling as the painful pantomime of happiness she exhibits while they are both jumping up and down their marital bed, as they once used to, while he crows ‘I’ve won the Nobel!’
First key to this unholy symbiosis, the Joe/Joan brand, is the seduction – which comprises of two parts. Him-to-her is as broad and stock as the man himself, the married young professor (Harry Lloyd as young Joe) charms his adoring, extremely talented student with citations of Joyce’s perfect ending to The Dead, a walnut, and that classic, my wife does not understand me (like you do), topping everything with a tease – are you free tonight (so you can babysit my daughter). A technique to be used and reused ad nauseam, as we shall sadly witness. The second part, her-to-him, is precise and perfectly formed, like the woman herself. Joan (Annie Starke, Close’s own daughter, as young Joan) gracefully bends down to pick the tie the professor’s angry wife threw at him. And then offers it to him almost as an act of communion, with an enigmatic yet understanding smile. The lady has not only got a gift she is willing to share, but a full grasp of the importance of being of service. She then coos to the baby daughter while the warring parents go out to dinner, soaking in all the private energy she can pick up on. There is something both romantically intimate and borderline terrifying in the way Joan starts absorbing all things Joe. Finally, she cracks the signed walnut Joe left in a drawer as a memento inscribed to his wife (along with spermicidal jelly) – and eats it. He is her territory now.
The second key is in the scene set in the 1950s, we see Joan – the reserved, yet clearly ambitious student, being introduced by her professor (and future husband) to a possible older version of herself in the shape of Elaine Mozell (Elizabeth McGovern) – a published writer whose prose is brilliant – clean, vivid, and bold (Joan remarks, in awe), but whose novels do not sell over a 1000 copies, and gather dust on the shelves of college libraries, while her lesser male counterparts get the glitz, the spin, the respect, and the global audience. Hollow-eyed, tipsy, and immeasurably bitter, the older woman writer advises the budding woman writer to give it all up. She’ll never make it in the male-dominated world of literature and publishing and reviews. It’s a bro circle. Joan is astonished, and replies that, nevertheless, writing is her life – a writer’s got to write. The lady shoots back – a writer’s got to be read, honey. Looking at that sort of probable destiny, and the disillusionment of the women delivering it, Joan makes her decision. In a desperate heartbeat, it seems.
Third key part is Joan getting her man, for keeps. And that’s the hardest part to watch. He is now a disgraced professor that ran away with his student, and as it turns out – a pretty mediocre writer. All the stakes of them as a couple are placed on his future oeuvre. But Joan can’t lie to him. Art is paramount. Ashen-faced she tells him that the first draft of his novel sucks. Joe cannot take it, if he is not adored as a writer, he’s out. Livid, he indignantly ends their relationship. Joan, suddenly horrified at the prospect of losing him (her life would be over, note that he is now her life, not the writing), offers a solution. Joe’s the one with the imagination, she points out, she’s a mere craftsman, so she’ll fix it for him. Does he want her to fix it for him? She then proceeds to fix everything else – a good publisher, family, clean laundry, his basic hygienic needs. While he continues a string of infidelities so long, it becomes the stuff of tabloid legend.
This we eventually hear from a hack, Nathanial Bone (Christian Slater), who followed the Castlemans to Sweden in hopes of getting authorisation for Joe’s biography. Not that we could not pick it up from the get go, as soon as Joe started chatting up a flight attendant on their way to Stockholm, and Joan giving the woman the stink-eye. It feels like a worn-out pattern.
Joe swats Mr Bone off like a fly, but Joan takes pity, and accepts his offer of a drink, supposedly to keep his snooping at bay – but somewhere, deep down, we feel her seething with the need for full exposure. Mr Bone also delivers regards from the ex-wife, who is now a psychiatrist (their daughter’s a dentist), and pleased that Joe was overtaken by someone that made his writing better. So much better. Bone lets that simmer with Joan. There is much more to the Castlemans than their joint persona conveys.
Travelling to Stockholm with the spouses is their son David (Max Irons), a thirty-something writer, who’s developing quite a voice, as his insensitive dad puts it, brooding and desperate for his father’s praise, which he never seems to receive, because how could he get it from a narcissist. Joe is fiercely competitive, the more so as he’s aware of his significant limitations. Joan is full of good words for her son’s writing, but that doesn’t seem to impress David much. The Castlemans also have a pregnant daughter, about whom we only know this biological fact. She gives birth right in the middle of the spousal breakdown. The gender roles doled out in the Castleman household are pretty unforgiving.
Moping about, David slowly but surely smells a rat (Joe can’t recognise the name of one of his characters) and egged on by Mr Bone, he pushes the fist ignition button. Is Joan the Nobel laureate’s ghost-writer? His mother covers for his father without so much as a blink.
However, hobnobbing with the Nobel crowd, Joe makes a crucial mistake, one we suspect he made repeatedly in the past. He remarks that his wife does not write. Thankfully. Or he would have writer’s block. But the stakes are now sky high. His wife just won the Nobel Prize in literature.
Then Joe gives a self-serving sentimental speech thanking his wife for everything (bar the writing) in his life, after she clearly expressed her wish not to be mentioned at all. The colossal disrespect her husband really has for her finally sinks in – and suddenly, authorship matters. Joan explodes, immediately and irrevocably, and leaves the ceremony.
The aftermath is tremendous, surgically accurate, and ultimately, lethal for Joe, as he ends the night with a coronary attack. Prior to showdown, he’s been spotted indulging in fatty foods and chasing comely young photographers, basking in doting establishment glory, oblivious to mortality.
We find out that Joan was not only his co-writer, she was the writer, while Joe slowly became an editor of his own celebrated novels. The rotten depths of their deal are exposed to the sunlight. There is a strong smell of mendacity in the air – and it smells like death, as Big Daddy would famously say.
The mechanics of their contract might have been subconscious and unprocessed, but their choices were entirely calculated. Joan had something Joe craved, a true talent. Joe had something Joan craved, social acceptance. In order to stay with this man and make it – what was required of her was to subjugate her creativity to his. To stay true to herself would mean to become unloved, to be shunned, to be alone. Insignificant.
To let go of Joan, for Joe, would mean to drown in the bottomless well of his own insecurities.
You loved holing up in the Village with the big bad Jew… You got the literary life and the house by the sea, Joe says, last man standing – and in the strangest of ways, of all things he says in the film, this is the only one that rings true.
The bond was thus forged and sealed, and fiercely stuck through, while Joan gave life to a monster (writing is like breathing to a writer Joe says to a room full of female students, only using the masculine pronoun) – but this was the way she kept her passion going, a tale that slid deep underground, while she was typing her stories in a small room, a willing abductee, her golden cage and her golden touch slowly devouring her soul.
This trade-off is something that might be encountered in all herstories, as we, the collective feminine, perform due diligence on our lives. The vast amounts of energy spent in constructing relationships, from our very flesh and bone, seems to be an intricate drive, finding beauty and sole purpose in merging with the other, a dignity in the nurture, a relief in taking a back-seat, a happiness in being the tails to the heads of the coin.
The thing is, I’ve never met a single man like that.
Which makes me think we’ve been conned.
The genius of Close is that you register this notion at the very beginning of The Wife, during the joint phone call when the Nobel Prize is announced to the spouses, and through a single expression on the wife’s face. It’s that petrified look people have when they realise they have been royally duped. She who calls herself ‘a kingmaker’ will now be watching the crowning of her false king in front of the entire world. All this time she made herself believe she was an equal partner in crime, the power behind the throne even, but as it turns out, Joan was merely a stooge.
As the devastating parting gesture to this end, Joan remains the keeper of the flame to her now departed husband, refusing to let his name be tainted with the truth. The myth of the great man will live on. At least, publicly. The flight attendant from the beginning of the film returns, on the flight back to the US, head out of frame, to give her condolences to Joan. Also to tell her how very loving they felt to her as a couple, and she sees many couples. Joan looks pleased. This is how she would like it to be. There seemed to me something very Jackie Kennedy about it all.
Privately she will tell her children how it all went down.
As her husband concludes while she professes love for him on his deathbed (and upon his request): she’s such a good liar, one could never really know.
The thing is, Joe is a liar, Joan is not. She did love him. Once.
Joan’s a sell-out.
And that’s the hard truth she wouldn’t want you to know. The very human, most tragic mistake of them all.