I’m gonna be mean.
The Wife is literally the type of movie that acts as a parody of arthouse cinema. It is literally the kind of drab and pretentious movie I imagine my friends and family conjure in their heads when they think of the “cultured” tastes of mine (those are scare quotes, lest one forgets one of my favorite movies of the year was the extended black metal music video with a chainsaw fight) when I halt for a moment before agreeing to see that Melissa McCarthy vehicles with them. I would much rather rewatch the last four Melissa McCarthy movies I saw* than suffer The Wife another time, even if it boasts a desperately powerhouse last gasp from Glenn Close for that Best Actress Oscar. At least, those films’ narrative histrionics are done for the sake of comedy. I’m not even sure Jane Anderson’s screenplay (based on a novel by Meg Wolitzer, I do not know how close an adaptation it is, but I admit that the premise interests me more as literature than cinema) recognizes its wild motions through “shocker” revelations as melodramatic, let alone does director Björn Runge want to squeeze a self-awareness of melodrama out of it.
That introduction to Close’s performance sounded too mean, let’s start over. Indeed, Close’s performance here transparently leaps for her elusive career-long lack of awarding from the Academy and it has been the one major constant source of accolade for The Wife since it premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. But she earns it: she is the sole human presence in the film that seems grounded other than Christian Slater (a distant second in the cast who does not rise above merely fine) and she has a firm hand on all the complexities of resentment and resignation bubbling within her character of Joan Castleman, who for the duration of the film has to sit through and witness the process of her husband Joe (Jonathan Pryce) being awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature. This is just as much an annoyance for their eldest child David (Max Irons) – their pregnant daughter Susannah (Alix Wilton Regan) not accompanying them to Stockholm for obvious reasons – as it is for Joan, but in David’s case, it’s because Joe treats David’s aspiring writing career as condescendingly as one could.
In Joan’s case, Joe does a terrible job at hiding and denying his constant pursuit of affairs (indeed, their very relationship was born as an extramarital affair), but it’s not just that. Apparently, dogged biographer Nathaniel Bone (Slater) has done a great deal of research in the hopes of getting Joe’s authorization for a biography and that research has led to a trail that heavily implies that Joe’s writing has mostly been done by Joan herself (albeit inspired by Joe’s life), partly in an attempt to circumvent the misogynist dismissal she would have received during her own early pursuit of a writing career back in the 1950s (portrayed in flashback by Streep’s daughter Annie Starke) but partly as a result of Joe’s fragile and bullying inability to take criticism or work around his own flaws as a writer (portrayed in flashback by Harry Lloyd).
That we don’t exactly see or learn much about the differing writing styles of Joan, Joe, or David is a pretty frustrating element of this film that is ostensibly about writers. But in any case, the directions in which Joan’s development takes over these long few days where she witnesses her husband gets what she wants (and, the film argues convincingly, deserves) while she has to use platitude that sell the image of a happy, supportive couple and convince her clueless spouse are navigated through deftly by Close that regardless of the quality of the movie around her, I would certainly be less objecting to her winning of the Best Actress Oscar than the other major contender this season, Lady Gaga.
But the quality of the movie around her… oof.
The complete funereal look to it afforded by Runge’s direction and cinematographer Ulf Brantås, with a lack of distinction in the fatigue of the 1993 sequence and the 1950s flashback that makes me wonder why bother making this a film and why not just make it a stageplay, to suggest tips its hand so far into artificial chilliness that it goes into sleepiness instead. But the real Achilles heel is Pryce’s performance, maybe the first performance he’s ever given that I find no redeeming qualities to and the biggest culprit at playing to the histrionics of the scenario in a manner that undercuts any attempt Lloyd makes at crafting the character as a subtle gaslighting manipulator.
For all that Anderson wants to portray a toxic masculine issue that is present (even if the observations never go much more than repetitions of “Joe complains about something and Joan breaks in half to make it stop”, topped off by an ending that feels like a deliberate cop-out), Pryce refuses to make Joe a flesh-and-blood human source of this issue so much as a stereotypical monster that The Wife can’t manage to contain with any sobriety it treats the rest of its aesthetic or narrative with. And that just ends up making all the misery this film puts forward feel like it’s for nothing.