This is a movie that I don’t want to discuss without spoiling its plot, though I don’t think it’s a movie that can be spoiled, because I went in knowing its secrets, and I still enjoyed it. But, fair warning, if you click for the full review, I’ll reveal the central twist . . .
The Wife is based on Wolitzer’s novel of the same name. I’ve long been a reader of Wolitzer, and The Wife is the book that made me a fan. It’s a short, deft novel told from the point of view of Joan Castleman, the wife of world-famous writer Joseph Castleman. Joan is bitter from the start, and obviously resentful of her husband’s success, though at first this seems due to the usual indignities of wifedom, especially as helpmeet to a big-egoed writer. The picture becomes more complicated when Joan reveals that she was once her husband’s student, a promising young writer who threw away her career to become his wife. As a newlywed, Joan worked briefly at a publishing house, where she witnessed so much editorial sexism that she worried that her work would always be classified as “little” and “domestic,” and she would never achieve her ambitions. Finally, the full nature of her sacrifice is revealed: instead of writing her own books, she ghostwrote her husband’s and let him take the credit. It was a devil’s bargain she thought she could live with—until the day she couldn’t.
In Wolitzer’s novel, the breaking point is when Joan’s husband wins The Helsinki Prize, an important literary honor that winks at the Nobel. Wolitzer often satirizes culture with these sideways renamings; in her most recent novel, The Female Persuasion, an aging feminist is editor-in-chief for a magazine that seems modeled on Ms. In The Interestings, Wolitzer’s most well-known novel, one of the characters becomes wealthy by creating a cartoon that sounds a lot like The Simpsons. This works well in a novel because it gives Wolitzer—and her readers—a certain freedom of imagination, but for the film, the screenwriter, Jane Anderson, and director Björn Runge, were wise to call the prize what it is: the Nobel. This not only raises the stakes immediately, but gives the film a realistic canvas upon which to build what is a somewhat far-fetched story about what one woman is willing to give up in order to write.
The novel unfolds in a confiding, quietly furious first person, and I worried that this movie would include a lot of voiceover, but it had none. Instead, Joan is played by Glenn Close, who communicates her character’s long-simmering anger with a tight smile and observant gazes that seem to say, at least I can write it all down later. There are several knock-down drag-out fights in which a scarily articulate Joan matches wits with Joe (Jonathan Pryce) who is also chafing under under the ghost-writing contract. Their arguments are raw and real, and seem to reverberate the walls of their richly appointed Swedish hotel suite. Pryce is convincing as the pampered Great Man who has made his own devil’s bargain, but I don’t think this premise would have been believable without Close. There’s something so close-mouthed and disciplined about her presence that it seems plausible that she could have put her own ego to the side for decades, even as her husband’s reputation grew beyond her wildest imaginings.
The only person who can even slightly thaw Joan is her husband’s unauthorized biographer, the wonderfully named Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), who follows the couple to the Nobel ceremony like a stray dog. Slater’s borderline-slimy charm is well deployed in the role of literary journalist. He gets a whiff that something is amiss in the Castleman marriage, and tries to convince Joan to spill her secret, which he has ferreted out through a careful reading of her undergraduate fiction. (The ultimate spoiler would be to reveal whether or not she confesses, but I’ll leave that question unanswered.)
One important thing to mention is that the novel is set in the early 1990s, when the literary world was more sexist than it is today, though I don’t meant to suggest that the publishing world is now free of sexism. But, thanks to the work of organizations like VIDA, which keeps track of the amount of bylines, review coverage, and prizes that women receive, publishers and editors are beginning to be held to account for their biases.
Publishing is so subjective that sometimes it’s hard to work out what is sexist and what counts as bad breaks, but when I was starting out as a writer, it was a joke among female writers I knew that we might have better luck with our submissions if we gave ourselves a male pen name—suddenly, our stories told from the point of view of young women, mothers, and daughters, would be considered sensitive and wise instead of girly and light. The Wife takes this thought experiment to an extreme, and I think to some viewers it might be seen as absurd, or over-simplified, but as a female novelist/mother/wife trying to balance all the expectations for my gender with my desire to write, I appreciated its exaggerations. And in the end, it didn’t seem so crazy to me that Joan would decide to sacrifice acclaim in order to write, because that’s what women have done for centuries. As Virginia Woolf wrote, “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”