ANY MANIFESTATION OF the arts in the public domain involves collaborative energy, give and take, the use of others’ expertise. And the names of those people are mostly not on the headlines of the work. Ask any sub-editor, stage manager, gallery factotum or set designer. Björn Runge’s film The Wife shines a spotlight on this uncomfortable reality, looking through the novel by Meg Wolitzer at the sacrifices pledged at the altar in a relationship which revolves around this business of working together to create something magnificent.
It’s a provocative idea which has dubious value for a lay audience, as it immediately paints the husband, Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) as the anti-hero. Indeed, he’s a narcissist who forgets key elements in the unspoken rules of collaborative truths, as he disregards the things that horrify his wife to the core. But the devil? No. In truth, there are many sides to a narrative of this kind, which feeds into the sexism of the 1950s, and choices open to young women at the time. And toss into that mix sexual flattery and the lure of an ‘ordinary’ life, to say nothing of the seeds cast on young people by creative heroes.
But as you watch the work, you can understand its narrative intentions. They’re about the concept of fraud, and secrets and lies. Couched in this context, however, something else gets teased open: a Pandora’s box which bruises the arts. Featuring an exceptionally honed performance by Glenn Close as the wife, Joan Castleman it reveals her 40-year tight grip on her ability. But it also reveals her 40-year hold on her sense of unjust exploitation.
Incisively supported by Harry Lloyd and Annie Starke as the couple, in the late 1950s, when the tale of writing and philandering, walnuts and secret jealousies first began, the trajectory of time is articulate and succinct. The young couple is particularly well-cast, offering a believable gloss on where Joan and Joe find themselves today, in Connecticut, in the 1990s.
Above all, it offers a cynical yet compelling take on the notion of awards in general, but in the arts specifically, as it glances at the invasiveness and self-reflexive pomp and ceremony around something as nebulous as creative energies. All the platitudes of an adoring (but oft ignorant) fan-base are trotted out here, and the writers of this film raise the stakes all the way to the highest accolade in the modern world: the Nobel Prize.
The trailer of this film offers you so much information about the story that very little surprises you when you see the whole thing, with the exception, that is, of where the children of superstar successes land as human beings in this world, whether or not they have the skill or talent of their prize-winning parent.
Having said that, The Wife will keep you on the edge of your seat, not for its story, but for the clandestine rage articulated by Close throughout. You know that at some point, her demure facade will crumble and the real Joan will emerge. You know there’s much more beneath the woman who does and says everything that society expects her to. You know you will not be disappointed. You won’t be.
The danger of a film of this nature is instead of leaving you with a rich understanding of the collaborative muddiness in creating gems, it will leave you questioning your heroes. Did Günter Grass pen it all? What about Orhan Pamuk? Gabriel Garcia Márques or Nadine Gordimer? And armed with this suspicion of doubt, does this corrupt your love of their work?
- The Wife is directed by Björn Runge and features a cast headed by Michael Benz, Catharina Christie, Glenn Close, Nick Fletcher, Jane Garioni, Karin Franz Körlof, Max Irons, Harry Lloyd, Elizabeth McGovern, Twinnie Lee Moore, Morgane Polanski, Jonathan Pryce, Christian Slater, Annie Starke, Carolin Stoltz and Alix Wilton Regan. It is written by Jane Anderson, based on the eponymous novel by Meg Wolitzer. Produced by Claudia Bluemhuber, Peter Gustafsson, Rosalie Swedlin, Meta Louise Foldager and Piers Tempest, it features creative input by Jocelyn Pook (music), Ulf Brantås (cinematography), Lena Dahlberg (editing), Elaine Grainger and Susanne Scheel (casting) and Trisha Biggar (costumes). Release date on the Cinema Nouveau bouquet hosted by Ster Kinekor: August 23 2018.