Film Critic Harlan Jacobson Reviews "The Wife"

Aug 17, 2018

"The Wife" is drawing attention at the box office
Credit Harlan Jacobson for WBGO

Just when we’re getting used to the noir-like crime stories from Sweden that started with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by writer Stieg Larsson about his alter ego Michael Blomqvist, the hard-bitten reporter swept up in murder, along comes a new film, The Wife, from Sweden also about a writer. 

You’re trying to sleep. Next to your wife. (Or, just to cover our bases, whomever.) It’s the middle of the night. And you get a phone call. It’s the phone call of your life. This is no neo-noir crime story from Stockholm. This is winning the intellectual lottery. You’ve won the Nobel Prize. For literature.

OMG, as novelists don’t say. Joe Castleman, the novelist here, is played by Jonathan Pryce. All traces of Brooklyn are long gone from the intellectual Castleman, as Pryce plays a great man of letters given to saying words like “tumescent” in the somewhat joyous sexplay with Glenn Close, his wife Joan Castleman, after getting the call of a lifetime in their comfortable Connecticut home.

They don’t say tumescent in Brooklyn, they have other words for it. Oh, sure, it’s the call Joe has always wanted to get. The Wife, which had its debut at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, where I’m headed just after Labor Day to see what’s in the pipeline for the coming season and year, is a husband and wife endgame drama that strives to equal Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay in 45 Years, and the incredible Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer as the Tolstoys in The Last Station. Since the call from Sweden is how this film opens, it doesn’t lead where Joe or Joan expect, as this photoplay unfolds.

I say photoplay in part because it moves like an intimate play. Adapted by Jane Anderson from a 2003 novel by Meg Wolitzer, The Wife tells the story of… well, the wife, ultimately, behind the scenes of a great writer who wins the Nobel Prize.

Directed by Swedish director Bjorn Runge and filmed in Scotland with a cast of mostly English actors to qualify for UK funding, and Stockholm, the first great payoff of The Wife is its behind the scenes look at the Nobel Prize event itself: the phone call, the ride on the now defunct Concorde, it’s 1992, the hotel, the limo, the ceremony rehearsal, the nominees from other disciplines like Physics, beset by related family dysfunctions to the Castlemans, the speeches, and dinner with the King in a great hall.

It’s all Nobel Prize porn, which is something of a first, and somewhat satisfies the curiosity of what it might feel like to score big in Sweden. But there’s a matter afoot between Joe and Joan. We flash back to Smith College, 1958, to witness how they met. He’s a young lit professor, played by Harry Lloyd (from The Theory of Everything), she’s an aspiring student writer, Joan Archer — will she shoot straight and true? — played by Annie Starke, Glenn Close’s daughter, who’s acted with her before in Albert Nobbs, when Close played an enigmatic English butler.

Starke’s young facial bones and pale eyes reflect the beauty in her mother’s face. Particularly as her expression cracks when she meets famous woman writer Elaine Mozell giving a talk on campus. As Mozell, Elizabeth McGovern has a one-scene star turn. She’s had the girl squeezed out of her, and the woman she’s become has been run over by the male establishment. Don’t write, she warns, it’s a dead end, in what is a plot hinge in the young Joan’s infatuation with her professor, he of the fragile male ego himself. He’s married with a baby.

He woos his student, Joan, first as a baby sitter, later as a lover. Today that dynamic would more likely end up in MeToo court rather than in a successful courtship and marriage with two kids, a very pregnant daughter, and a 20-something disconsolate son, David, played by Max Irons, son of Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack.

David is the cliché, an open wound with a grievance locked in Oedipal combat with his famous father and always on the losing end of the stick. Of course, he makes the trip to Stockholm with a story he wrote that he hopes pops will like—he won’t--and a box of cigars as tribute. The script leans on this, and it’s mostly a distraction, except as further evidence of Joan’s complex mastery of everything great and small. The Castlemans are by all accounts a successful partnership built on the gender faultline that has cracked wide open in our own time. They’re pursued relentlessly by a jack-in-the-box journalist and perhaps would-be Castleman biographer, Nathaniel Bone, played razor sharp by Christian Slater, who can smell a rat, knows a story when he sees one, and stalks them like a horror movie clown: on the Concorde, not once but twice, in a pub, in the hotel lobby, wherever.

Bone essentially pops up in the hamper of their dirty laundry. What he’s after is not just the novelist’s penchant for indiscreet affairs, either. What bothers Joan is what bothers women about men. To say more would be to spoil an intelligent evening at the theatre, in cinema close-up with Close and Pryce, indulging your own Nobel Prize fantasies—though mine never quite include throwing the medal out the window of a speeding limo.

The Wife ends on a perfect pirouette and a question mark. For now, I snuggle into my seat on the Concorde and drift off into what I want to hear. Mr. Jacobson? Yes-s-s? Good morning. You’ve won the Nobel Prize for radio film criticism. You have transcended the audio medium of the early 20th Century with a divine spark that recreates the immediacy of images of the 21st Century that jump across the medium into the imagination of all humanity. We listen and see because of you. Skol to that, Sven.

Click above to hear Harlan's review of The Wife.