Netflix UK film review: The Wife
James R | On 29, Jan 2019
Director: Björn Runge
Cast: Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Max Irons, Christian Slater
Watch The Wife online in the UK: Netflix UK / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Sky Store
It’s not often that an actor gets nominated for an Oscar without saying very much. That’s the triumph of Glenn Close’s performance in The Wife – and precisely the point of the whole film.
“My wife doesn’t write, thank God,” jokes Professor Joseph Castleman (Pryce) near the start of the film, as he fends off a group of fawning fans. Nominated for a Nobel Prize, the author is at the height of his career, riding a wave of acclaim and attention. Nobody gives a thought for his other half, Joan – “Jean”, as one inattentive onlooker mistakenly calls her – but Joseph is sure to give her a share of the credit. After all, she makes him the man he is.
Precisely how she does that, quietly holding onto his arm, accompanying him everywhere and taking care of the press, is the source of the drama’s gently bubbling tension – and as the spotlight shines brighter and brighter on the Castlemans, the less flattering their relationship appears.
Jonathan Pryce is superb as the mildly preening artist, a man who solemnly believes in his own brand but isn’t above childishly jumping up and down on the bed with excitement at the Nobel news. He’s self-absorbed almost to a fault, clashing with both Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), a writer who wants to pen his biography, and his own son, David (Max Irons), an aspiring scribe who isn’t afraid to call out his father’s patronising criticism and feedback.
But Joseph isn’t the real star, even though he verbally dominates every scene: adapted from Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel of the same name, the story is called The Wife, not The Husband, for a reason. That becomes apparent as we spend time with them in their early days of courtship, flashbacks that give a taste of the dynamic between them, as Joe, the professor of this promising young literature student, left another marriage to be with her. It’s a dynamic of speaking and listening – no prizes for guessing who does what – and of frequent infidelity (again, no prizes).
Jane Anderson’s script doesn’t give Joan the dialogue to express her frustration at being the token plus-one – to do so would make the tone more entertaining, but would lose the movie’s quietly tragic impact – but director Björn Runge repeatedly wraps his frame around her, drawing us in to study her composed face in close-up. She repays him with a magnetic, wordless presence that ensures that even when the story beats become familiar and predictable, the unspoken emotions that we glimpse running across her expressions, speak volumes. It’s a powerhouse turn – all the more so because you almost don’t notice.
The Wife is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.