The Wife, despite its familiar packaging, believes its method of delivery is substantially more clever than it is. A film whose very title thinks it’s doing something new and subversive, it results in little more than delivering a message as regressive as Labor Day.
In 1993, Joan (Glenn Close) and Joe (Jonathan Pryce) Castleman are an elderly couple who surface level seem to have a great life. They’ve been married for nearly 40 years, with Joe enjoying the career and status of a Great American Novelist, while Joan is the eternally supportive wife. When Joe is chosen to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, the event forces all the secrets they’ve kept carefully concealed to come to the surface, and Joan doesn’t so much question her life choices as begin to break under the weight of them.
The situation is rather familiar, with Joe coming off as the stereotypical jerk who is nevertheless surrounded by sycophants who adore his work while his boorish behavior is overlooked and tolerated. The Wife tries to add a twist when it reveals just how Joe became so successful in the first place, but by that time it’s been so easily deduced it’s hardly a shock. Instead, The Wife would rather pour all its effort in trying to be subversive, so much so it seems disinterested in understanding why Joan was drawn to Joe in the first place. Flashbacks reveal how they met in the 50s when she was a student at a women’s college and he was a married teacher. He had a certain appeal that good-looking, smooth-talking men tend to have, but it’s hard to fathom their growing connection, let alone why Joan became his mistress, then the Good Wife who ignored his many infidelities.
Because it isn’t the casual sexism inherent in the way Joan is dismissed and condescended to that infuriates her, or the movie for that matter. It’s the fact that she’s treated as The Wife. The movie doesn’t try to make a case for such women to be taken seriously, it’s trying to indicate that Joan is better than that, thus indulging in the very sexism it claims to oppose. When a writer (Christian Slater) who’s threatening to expose the couple’s secrets claims that Joan is more interesting than a victim, it’s hard to agree when everything ultimately comes down to the men.
This includes their children as well. Their daughter is a perfectly happy wife who is about to give birth. None of the unhappiness she may have experienced is dwelled upon. Not so for their son David (Max Irons), an aspiring writer whom Joe often belittles. He is the son who is trying to live up to his father, who turns out to be a false idol. The tragedy is compounded when it’s revealed how little Joan paid attention to him while he was growing up, failing in her duty as “proper mother.”
To its credit, the movie does acknowledge just how much this kind of marriage has been portrayed before in a particularly amusing scene where Joe tells his son that the book which is clearly inspired by his parents’ marriage is cliché. Less so are the scenes in the 50s where Joan encounters an older, bitter female author and worked at a publishing house, where she saw firsthand the likely fate which awaited her if she pursued her own writing aspirations. This is supposed to explain her decision to put her dreams aside, but it feels fatalistic, disinterested in the complexities women writers face, both then and now. Where are the parallels to how female authors are still supposed to make their characters likable, and how much their work is dismissed with the pejorative “women’s fiction” when male writers are praised when they write about the same subjects?
The Wife would rather have Joan give lip service to empowerment while not only giving Joe a free pass for all his behavior, but the last word as well. Joan will forever be in service to him. The fact that any of this is even remotely palatable is solely due to the strength of Glenn Close’s fantastic performance, which could’ve sold this if only the material she was working with was more perceptive. But even her top-notch skills can’t salvage this.