Do what you need to do.
After multiple expressions of frustration tinged with disgust on behalf of David Castleman (Max Irons) towards his father Joe (Jonathan Pryce), the time for the latter to finally tell the former what he thinks about his short story arrives. Joe is an acclaimed author who’s just landed in Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize in literature and David has accompanied him and his mother Joan (Glenn Close) for the ceremony. She’s already been effusive with praise about her son’s latest piece while awaiting her husband to put aside selfishness and tell the boy he’s proud regardless of its quality. Joe instead exclaims with incredulity that the characters (a stubbornly boorish man and a woman seething with rage) are too clichéd. Our faces quickly mirror David’s tellingly shocked silence.
Why you ask? Because the description Joe provides could have easily been about Joan and him. We don’t need David to state this obvious conclusion either, his mouth agape enough to relay the message: “Is that what you think of yourself and Mom? I modeled them after you.” It’s one of The Wife‘s most memorable bits of stark truth within the whole’s elaborate lie just now coming into focus for the liars thanks to this prestigious award looming above their heads. Despite all the platitudes Joe bestows upon Joan during the course of interviews, parties, lectures, and photo shoots, this unwittingly unadulterated critique of his own life cuts through to the heart of everyone in that room. To him love and ownership are cruelly and irrevocably synonymous.
But I’ve jumped ahead. There’s more than an hour of intimate character study before this moment so we can come to that conclusion on our own. It therefore proves so impactful because our having pegged Joe as this man through his adultery, gaslighting, peacocking, and unsympathetic contrition still can’t prepare us for him to admit it with such ferocity and shortsighted obliviousness. This is when Joan accepts how she was fed a different lie than the one the world had consumed. After everything she did in the name of love to forgive his transgressions and stand by him as dutiful manager, nurse, muse, and confidant on top of so much more, he really couldn’t understand how his gestures to try and make things right only made them worse.
Adapted by Jane Anderson from Meg Wolitzer‘s novel, the title is crucial to ensuring we know where to look. Director Björn Runge and Pryce intentionally seek to steal our attention away from Close by making Joe the center of attention. He’s the author. He’s the newly minted Nobel laureate. He’s the reason everyone has gathered to listen to stories with envy and perhaps even lust. Joan is no stranger to this considering she was once his enamored student before becoming his wife. Flashbacks portray as much with Close’s real-life daughter Annie Starke opposite Harry Lloyd as young Joan and Joe respectively. These glimpses back in time are triggered by her mounting resentment, each one peeling back a layer of artifice they expertly crafted for this dream come true.
So we peel our eyes away from Joe’s charismatic grandstanding to find Joan in the background holding back her emotions—elation and bitterness alike—with every fiber of her being. The camera and those in frame frequently turn to her for reactions too, receiving measured responses catered to her role as spouse for their trouble that we gradually begin to see as transparently prepared statements. It’s an unforgettable performance perpetually steeped in this duality of internal turmoil and external composure. We see the tears welling in her eyes when Joe speaks kindly of her to the public and know they’re tears of annoyance and deep betrayal rather than the blushing embarrassment the others presume. And the reasons for such knowledge are plentiful if you know where to look.
While Christian Slater‘s Nathaniel Bone (Joe’s would-be biographer if he’d ever grant the permission) is here to call out the blatant facts through his opportunistic digging, he’s merely laying the groundwork for our minds to remember what we’ve already learned that might corroborate his theories. It’s Joan’s expressions that give away the truth in hindsight—her reaction to good news, her ability to turn from joyous to solemn on a dime, and especially the wry smile she gives when lying on the record to someone she knows won’t be fooled but can’t do anything about it. Soon every minute detail reveals an ulterior motive in context with new information discovered along the way. What might seem superfluous at first actually harbors micro-expressions, foreshadowing, and déjà vu.
How these interactions between Joan, Joe, and David (with Nathaniel’s intrusions) unravel is extraordinary. This script could kill on stage as easily as it does on the big screen because of how each page is hiding an explosive amount of repressed emotion and secretive intent. Words like “pity” and “victim” land with chauvinistic implication before subsequent scenes expose such a reading as superficial. What initially feels patriarchal with a side of entitlement becomes wrapped up in consent, psychological abuse, and defeatism. A marriage built on equity eventually shows its strings. A mutually beneficial understanding soon cracks under the pressure of fame. And suddenly talent transforms into a question of bankability, integrity a matter of self-enforced censorship. One’s career becomes another’s game and she can ignore it no longer.
The Wife depicts only a couple days and yet so much occurs. These two have spent their lives working towards this moment and its achievement strips them bare of the exacting façades that paved the way. Their life partnership becomes reduced to reductive cliché in an instant as the spotlight tilts in their direction, the roles they’ve obediently played put to the test with one steeled to the job at-hand while the other is consumed by attention not felt in years. It’s a brilliant metaphor for the social and cultural disparity between genders that still exists and still somehow gets dismissed as farce. Watching after what played out between Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh only amplifies how deep its analogy goes. The chauvinistic free pass remains alive.
 Left to right: Glenn Close as Joan. Photo by Graeme Hunter, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Left to right: Jonathan Pryce as Joe and Glenn Close as Joan. Photo by Graeme Hunter, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Left to right: Annie Starke as Young Joan and Harry Lloyd as Young Joe. Photo by Graeme Hunter, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics