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Reel Talk: a review and analysis of ‘The Wife’

Sep. 6, 2018
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Reel Talk is your pit stop for film discussions, curated lists of wonderful movies, and exciting TV series reviews. I’m Anna, an avid film junkie. Not only do I love watching movies, I also enjoy analyzing and sharing them with others. 

This review contains spoilers.

Nowadays, how often do movies feature main characters over the age of 50? Unless it’s a historical film about a well-known figure, like Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour, or a film with an eccentric old character, such as John Kramer in Saw, Dumbledore in Harry Potter, or Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather, most movies don’t. In mainstream cinema, the portrayal of older people isn’t a typical choice for filmmakers.

But The Wife, a recent drama directed by Swedish director Bjorn Runge, explores the multidimensional marriage of Joan Castleman (Glenn Close) and her celebrated husband, Nobel Prize-winning writer Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce). It masterfully and attentively focuses on the characters’ development and relations. Not only does The Wife delve into family dynamics and the societal roles of men and women distinctively, it sheds light on toxic masculinity. Although in the first scene we could easily cringe at the old couple’s bedroom moment, it’s these occasions of light-hearted and witty comedy that lift the mood of the drama. In exploring one flawed relationship, the film highlights a much greater issue in society: a woman’s place in the public sphere. Through flashbacks to the ‘50s and ‘60s, we see subtle gender-rooted prejudice which poses as a leading factor in hindering our female protagonist and initiating her self-doubt.  

The story opens with the couple receiving the news. On the surface level, we see a very loving and sincere marriage. Joan is a typical wife who always seems supportive of her husband’s career and takes great care of his well-being. Paying close attention to the lighting, the first quarter of the movie creates a quite dreamy and bright mood—as to suggest the idealistic state of their marriage and the good news they have just received (Joseph winning the Nobel Prize for Literature). Soon after receiving the news, the couple travels to Stockholm, where the prize will be awarded. The film hits its climax when secrets and truths hidden within the marriage starts to unravel. The first moment of tension arises at a party being thrown to celebrate Joseph’s achievement. Here, Joan is shown talking to a woman before being called over to be introduced to Joseph’s friends. These few minutes of conversation about his success reestablish the private sphere that women often exist in and their persistent role as the “supporters,” the ones to be “introduced” by the husband. Not so far into the movie, we begin to recognize an obvious distinction between the men’s conversation and that of the women.

When the couple arrives in Stockholm, where Joseph is to receive his Nobel Prize, the event organizers greet them and welcome them to the city. Here, although both Joan and Joseph are paid an equal amount of respect and sincerity, the discussed topics differ. After letting Joseph know about the sorts of things that he will need to do in order to prepare for the big event, a woman approaches Joan with suggestions of “shopping and beauty treatments” because “[Joan’s] husband will be very busy.” Every so often, she is reminded of her place, of the constructs that have been laid concrete in the role of a woman. In one of the flashbacks, an alumnus at Smith College, where she was studying as a writer, makes a strong impression on her. In this encounter, Joan is harshly told the blatant truth: she should never expect the approval and recognition of male editors, critics, writers, publishers, scholars, or readers. It is these events that help us begin to understand the couple’s deepest hopes and fears. Throughout the film, we relentlessly hear Joseph thanking his wife in his speeches. At one point, he makes a joke: “Well, everybody thanks their wife. Otherwise I would seem like a narcissist.” And Joan replies, “You are.” Although their relationship features sarcastic humor sometimes, it’s quite hard to tell if Joan really means what she says. As her annoyance with Joseph’s inconsiderate behavior start to build, we begin to question the sincerity of their marriage. 

Joan’s character presents an intelligent and hard-working woman who’s not only diligent in terms of being a wife, but also a mother. At Joseph’s celebration he says, “I am I plus my surroundings.” Although this is simply a quotation, regarding his wife with an anonymous term like “surroundings” simply devalues the hard work Joan has been doing for years for his career. We eventually learn that she has been the secret co-writer of his novels. 

The notion of toxic masculinity is further explored in Joseph’s character. Throughout the film, we learn about his cheating tendencies—something later hinted to be a consequence of his “deep-seated fear of inadequacy.” His fear of not having a flair for writing like his wife might have driven the course of his life decisions. Due to his insecurity, Joseph is easily offended by criticism of his writing and indulges in secret affairs with younger women to fulfill his masculinity and pride. 

Joseph met Joan in the 1950s, a decade known for its culture of sex prejudice and conformity. To an extent, Joseph seems unaware of the discrimination and prejudice that his wife faced, because it’s debatable whether it was him or American society at large that deterred Joan from pursuing her dream of being a novelist. When the biographer, Nathaniel, said that “the wife doesn’t often get enough credit,” Joseph snapped instantly, saying “I give my wife plenty of credit.” Although he knows quite well that he owes his entire career to his wife’s talent, the combination of his toxic masculinity and his fear of being nothing prevents him from accrediting her properly. Ultimately, it becomes clear that Joseph views himself as the lesser one in the marriage. When Joan gets home late from exploring Stockholm alone, Joseph panics and yells, “Don’t ever disappear on me.” Perhaps he knows that he’s dependent on her—not only for his writing, but also for his ego and pride as a man. Towards the end of the movie, during their last argument, Joseph pleads, “Give me some credit for loving you.” Although it isn’t completely clear what is meant by this, it’s quite obvious that Joseph is so privileged that he is disconnected from the prejudice Joan endures in her everyday life. Despite knowing that claiming his wife’s works as his is wrong, he still refuses to tell the truth until he dies. This only further suggests that Joseph doesn’t truly find Joan deserving of a place in the public sphere; rather, he only wants her to be acknowledged under his shadow, as an inspiration and a muse for his art.

Bjorn Runge said in an interview about The Wife with ScreenRant: “For me it's [the movie] about the truth. Truth is the key to healing. And even if it's very painful to find the truth is in your life, it is necessary if you’re going to have a good future. Here, this film is very much about a dark secret that has become a burden for the whole family.” The entirety of this film focuses on the unfolding secrets and complexities within the couple’s marriage. We soon realize that the Nobel Prize is merely a symbol for the validation that both characters strive to feel. Joseph is the official recipient of the prize, but Joan is its real owner. In exploring the complexity of this story, the director raises the crucial question of the woman’s place in the public sphere. It’s not a question of whether or not she deserves it, but whether or not the public would validate the talent of a female writer.