“THE WIFE” AND THE HORRORS OF MARRIAGE
They pretend that everything is healthy between them even though nothing is as it should be.
A while back, there was a trend on Twitter where some users would create threads reflecting on how their parents and grandparents, who they’d always known to be partnered, should have probably broken up a long time ago. Of course, there were the regular contrarians who expressed remorse that this new generation of adults were too ambivalent about the prospects of getting married, starting roots, and conforming to the tradition of sticking it out even when the relationship has turned sour. But beyond those oppositions, introspection fractured until some people were able to recognize how traditional hetero-monogamous relationships in their family often operated as prison for the vibrant and colourful women in their lives, the women who’d unfortunately met the wrong men. Everyone had a similar story about a grandmother or mother who had been successful, ambitious or funny—until, of course —they met their father or grandfather who would turn out to be abusive in some way and who’d dim their happiness. The conversation removed the veil of romanticization that had us all believe that we should all aspire to be in long-term marriages like our grandparents. Jane Anderson’s adaptation of The Wife proves that it is desperately important to aspire to be more than another’s caretaker and even more crucial, to choose the right partner.
The Oscar-nominated film, which was drawn from a novel by Meg Wolitzer, gaining recognition after its release in 2018, is absolutely tragic. Actress Glenn Close is astonishing as she breathes life into the character of Joan Castleman, a determinedly poised supporter and shield of her parasitic husband Joe (Jonathan Pryce), the great pretender.
The movie is panicking in the ludicrousness of how Joe and Joan seem stuck in their terrific con that would have others believe that he can write. They pretend that everything is healthy between them even though nothing is as it should be. Joan is relegated to the position of wife, a role which we learn early, is akin to nothingness, in nearly everybody’s eyes, but especially in Joe’s.
In the beginning of The Wife, we find Joe sitting at the side of his bed, eating something sugary that’s not good for his health. When Joan realizes what he’s doing and tries to dissuade him from eating, he responds by trying to arouse her to perform sex. It’s a cliché, but it works to make us understand their relationship. He doesn’t listen when she says she’s not interested. In fact, he’s unrelenting as he tells her, “you don’t have to do anything, just lie there.” And as instructed, she becomes amenable to his advances as he goes on about a younger version of himself. Slowly, she acquiesces to suit his needs. From then on, we know that even in small moments, when he can respect her choice to say no, he will always choose what’s most convenient for him, at the expense of her.
This sentiment is rippled throughout the film. When in Sweden with their son David (Max Irons), they largely stay within the confines of these roles. Joe is the star, a Nobel Peace Prize award recipient for his literary genius, a person whom everybody wants to speak to, while Joan remains by his side, holding his coat, and smiling on command. So much of her public identity, is rooted in being the docile homemaker and long-suffering wife of an artist, to the point that, she caricaturizes the part of what others expect of a wife.
Still, no one really notices her presence and when they do, it’s believed that she’s incapable of conversation and thought beyond extending platitudes or boasting about her husband. And so, in almost every public occasion in the film, Joan is effaced. Until Nathanial Bone, a curious biographer, unearths much of the buried resentment within their marriage, when he tries to uncover the identity of the true genius in the Castleman family.
The Wife is mostly predictable but somehow also shocking. Close is a sensation in her role as Joan, such that without speech, her every thought and emotion feel so transparent and emissive. Her conflicted understanding of her entrapment makes the audience equally disturbed about how to feel about everything. While watching, it feels even worse that Joe continues to ignore his wife and push the boundaries of his lie. And so further on within the story, when Joe’s manipulative disposition is slowly unraveled, it’s a relief to get a concrete sense of who you thought he was, past the distractions, and past the persona he’s embodied.
Jonathan Pryce is also marvellous at dancing between fragility and maliciousness. It’s maddening. The fact that very little is communicated between Joan and Joe in the way of truth, until further into the movie, forces the audience to anticipate a tipping point. But in the end, the viewer remains unappeasable, never getting what we truly want. But we do get the opportunity to consider what we would do if we were Joan or even David. How would you respond to being erased and yet affirmed in the wrong way?
There is a scene in The Wife that lingers, which really makes you wonder about some of the most famous couples in history; the ones where a man would be ostentatious with veneration for their wife, going on about how much their success was owed to them. It’s starts with Joe after he’s formally awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his literary work in front of the world and with a warm acknowledgment. Everybody is waiting for dinner to be served. Joe is at his best, joking with the king of Sweden about his late mother’s bad cooking skills, when he’s asked away from the table, leaving Joan to entertain. The king asks about her occupation and she says, “I am a king maker.” Naïve to the note of sadness in her tone and face, he smiles, dismissive as he tells her, “you know my wife will tell you the same thing.” Joan looks defeated as her head bows with a smile to no one in particular, knowing that no one would believe how true those words were.