The script for “The Wife” is drawn from a 2003 novel by Meg Wolitzer, and if I’d read the novel first, I don’t think I’d have gone to see the film
But never mind that. The book is about Joan Castleman (Glenn Close) a long-married woman who reflects on her life as she accompanies her husband, Joseph (Jonathan Pryce,) to Europe where he is to receive a major literary prize.
The movie’s backstory (featuring Annie Starke and Harry Lloyd) gives us younger Joan and Joe’s first meeting — she as a talented writing student and he as her professor at Smith College.
The professor introduces Joan to a Smith alumna, a published author who discourages Joan’s writing ambition. “Don’t do it,” says the writer. “The men are the ones who get to be taken seriously.”
Joan falls in love with Joe, who leaves his wife and child to marry her. Joan is the nice lady who takes care of him and raises their children while he writes books that are published to gathering acclaim.
Joan, having begged off a “wive’s” outing during the award weekend, agrees to have a drink with Nathaniel. He tells her that Joe’s first wife is grateful to Joan for having got him out of the first wife’s now-successful life. Nathaniel further shares that he has found and read Joan’s early writing in the Smith archives. He asks why she hasn’t published work of her own.
Joan puts him off calmly. “I had very low expectations about what I could achieve as a female writer,” she says.
(This is a weak answer. Between the year when the Castlemans met and 1992, the time of the movie, 11 women had won the Pulitzer Prize for American fiction, including Harper Lee, Eudora Welty, Marilynn Robinson, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. Literate Joan would have known very well that times had changed.)
As the prize ceremony nears, Joan continues to be the gracious, ever-thoughtful wife through further insults. When she asks one thing of Joe — that he not thank her in his acceptance speech — he refuses adamantly.
“I have to thank you. Everyone thanks their wife. If I don’t I’ll come off as a narcissistic bastard.”
Well, yes. The point of the story is that Joe is bad and Joan is good. Things come to a head, and Joan reacts a bit and then must stop, with a dollop of hope for the future.
Besides congratulating Joan for her unending forbearance, the script (and perhaps the book) misses a piece — the part where Joan acknowledges the role she has played in her unhappy situation.
This could have been done without a screaming match or crockery getting thrown around. Glenn Close could have made it work. But she didn’t get a chance.
If you like movies about smart women who are victims of male dominance, this might appeal to you. But if you prefer women who assert some agency over their own fates, maybe not so much.