Glenn Close, The Wife, and All the Women Who Came Before
There are many reasons why Glenn Close is the perfect actress to play Joan Castleman, the titular heroine of The Wife. Besides her talent, it is the fact of Close’s four-decade-long career and the evolution of her characters through it that make this new role so resonant, and hopefully a good chance for the actress to finally win a much-deserved Oscar after being nominated and losing six times.
The Wife is not exactly a misleading title: in Björn Runge’s film adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s best-selling novel of the same name, Joan is a devoted spouse to her writer husband Joe (Jonathan Pryce), and has been by his side for years, providing the emotional support he has needed to become a celebrated author; as the film opens, he is to be awarded a Nobel prize for his life’s work.
Joan is also a caring mother, especially to their son David (Max Irons), who resents his father for putting all the family responsibilities onto her. But Joan refuses to be seen as a victim: she insists that her life choices have always been her own. This thoughtful maternal instinct recalls Glenn Close’s very first film roles: as Jenny Fields, the strong-minded single mother in The World According to Garp in 1982, and as Sarah, the understanding and forgiving partner to Kevin Kline in The Big Chill the following year. Like she did for these iconic women, Close brings some genuine warmth and care to Joan without any sentimentality, instead grounding her affection into a profound intelligence.
Joan, of course, is much more than a spouse: she is also a woman, with a past in which her desires and ambitions have been buried. At first, she seems to be at the polar opposite of Alex Forrest, the dangerous femme fatale that Close played with such sexiness and intensity in Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction in 1987 – for many, her signature role. Alex was independent and, to put it mildly, always going after what she wanted: she was not gonna be ignored.
Joan, by contrast, has been living in her husband’s shadow for years. But Alex, after all, wanted nothing less than to be there for Michael Douglas’ Dan, and even tried to force a new family life unto him by claiming she had gotten pregnant, then by kidnapping his daughter. This desperate wish for the family unit echoes through Joan too, as she reflects on the choices she made as a young woman in the name of love and the fear of the future. Just as Alex, deep inside, didn’t have the self-confidence to realise that her married lover would never be honest with her and fulfil her needs – he’d never leave his wife to make Alex his wife – Joan too slowly comes to realise and regret her own past vulnerability.
There’s a little of the Marquise de Merteuil to Joan, too. To survive –and even thrive– in the male-dominated French court of Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons, the Marquise had developed, since her teenage years, the ability to seem content even as she was suffering and angry at her misfortune. “I practiced detachment. I learned how to look cheerful while, under the table, I stuck a fork into the back of my hand. I became a virtuoso of deceit.”
Joan is another expert of duplicity, but at a deeper level, for Joan had first convinced herself of the lie she came to live. One of the main pleasures of The Wife is found in seeing a woman come into her own, incrementally but to a powerful effect as she reframes her entire life. The Marquise would deeply admire Joan in her late awakening.
Close has played strong and complex women all her life, and from Cruella de Vil and her startling looks and greed in 101 Dalmatians, to Albert Nobbs’ escape from misogyny through drag, she has always challenged gender expectations (even appearing as a cross-dressing pirate in Hook). The Wife sees her reconnect to this favourite and crucial theme, and in its mix of subtlety, engagement with real-life contradictions and display of courage (for both the actress and the character), it’s at once the crowning achievement of a long feminist career and a reminder that Glenn Close deserves not to be thanked in a speech, like Joan is by her husband, but to give her own speech when she collects her golden statuette.
[Words by Manuela Lazic]
Joan Castleman (Glenn Close) is "the perfectly devoted wife". Forty years spent sacrificing her own talent, dreams and ambitions to fan the flames of her charismatic husband Joe (Jonathan Pryce) and his skyrocketing literary career. Ignoring his infidelities and excuses because of his 'art' with grace and humor. Their fateful pact has built a marriage upon uneven compromises and Joan's reached her breaking point.
On the eve of Joe's Nobel Prize for Literature, the crown jewel in a spectacular body of work, Joan's coup de grace is to confront the biggest sacrifice of her life and secret of his career.
A poignant, funny and emotional journey; a celebration of womanhood, self-discovery and liberation, The Wife is playing on Curzon Home Cinema now