Monday, 13 August 2018

The Wife (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: Famed author Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) has received news that he will be awarded with the Nobel Prize for Literature. As he and his wife Joan (Glenn Close) travel to Stockholm for the ceremony, journalist Nathaniel (Christian Slater) starts to ask questions about their life together, their business partnership, and in the process, begins to unearth some secrets within the family. Is Joan really as passive as the world thinks she is?

Pryce manages to take what should be a rather plastic character archetype, that of the narcissistic writer, and turn it into something quite extraordinary. He hits all the self-important beats that come gift-wrapped with said archetype, but the way he delivers them under a (mostly) subdued tone and rather learned demeanour, it manages to get across both his surface-level characteristics and the still-beating human heart that lies beneath them.

Opposite him, Close is in full Dangerous Liaisons mode here as the simmering and passionate ‘great woman behind the great man’, letting sheer discomfort and restlessness ooze out from behind her patient visage. Harry “Give me my golden crown!” Lloyd and Annie Starke as their respective younger selves emphasise a lot of the film’s ponderings on youthful recklessness, while still echoing Pryce and Close’s enviable chemistry together.

Slater as the nosy biographer follows the pattern of our leads, in that while he definitely gets across the basics of the character quite nicely, he is also adept at the more nuanced aspects of it. Max Irons manages to improve from the last time he performed alongside Glenn Close, and possibly any of his prior films so far, as his depiction of the jaded son whose chip on the shoulder has a chip on its shoulder gets across all the cathartic resentment that entails in quite entertaining fashion.

Stories like this that delve into the creative writing process require two key things to flourish: An understanding of what makes good writing and what goes into the person that creates it. On that first point, this film absolutely shines as this contains some of the most polished thematic and literary devices I’ve seen in a movie all year. The dialogue makes frequent mention of the idea of plain characterisation, where the story is held back by players that are stilted, and the writing as a whole definitely makes its point in how willing it is to delve beneath the surface of seemingly basic details. The brilliant writer, the dutiful wife, the vexed son, the muckraking biographer; we’ve seen these archetypes before.

And yet, despite how simple they may appear initially, the dialogue combined with the sparkling performances become rather revealing as the film goes on. The writer is shown to be a complicated and far-from-saintly individual, the wife becomes far less passive, the son shows the reasons why he is as vexed as he is, and the biographer turns out to be far less interested in scandal than he is in truth. Some of this is shown through the dialogue, some through the performances, and some through the connection of images and actions. I mean, it’s not every day that a film comes out that can sell cigarette smoking and jumping on the bed as legitimate thematic tools.

But what does all of this nuance amount to? Well, this touches on that second aspect of what makes for good writing about writing in how it looks at the creative process… and it is about as far from romanticized as I’ve seen in quite some time. It carries the expected air of treating writing as an almost-divine art form in how it can channel the soul of the person holding the pen, but it also delves into the cultural aspects that can affect that process. Not necessarily the writing itself, although this film shows that to be quite influenced by the world around the writer, but getting that writing into the hands of another. One of the film’s more pointed moments comes in a flashback to the young Joan in a publishing house where prospective books are being discussed. One of the men brings up the work of a female writer that shows promise… but then declares it “soft” because the story is told from a woman’s perspective. That ends up being rather telling of how this film melds gender politics into the overall narrative, showing the unfortunate divide between the sexes as far as who can get published and who is in charge of making that decision.

While this also mingles with moments of our older leads reminiscing on their youthful recklessness, it ends up revealing something vital about the creative process: It exists regardless of the obstacles around it. As we learn more about Joan’s own history with writing, we see how even the sexist attitudes of the era (and, by extension, this era) aren’t enough to quell that divine frenzy. It’s a means of pouring one’s own emotions, their ennui, their grievances, their things that can’t be uttered in speech, onto a blank piece of paper; the kind of cathartic process that is all that stands between some people and insanity. And yet, the relationship between Joe and Joan show that it can also lead to insanity as well, as bigger questions are raised about who truly deserves the credit.

But here’s where the film’s approach to nuance ends up reaching its pinnacle. We are shown the thought process that went into these books. We are shown the societal barriers that would make their arrangement into something feasible. We are shown how that creative spark exists even in the presence of soul-crushing circumstances. But what we are not shown is the bad guy who let all of this happen; this isn’t Big Eyes we’re talking about here. Even after all is said and done, largely thanks to just how natural Pryce and Close’s chemistry is, this doesn’t feel like a standard ‘scorned wife’ narrative. It’s a lot more complicated than that, because the real juice of a story is rarely that simple.

All in all, this is a very impressive offering that gives a much-needed change in perspective when it comes to writing about the art of writing. The acting is outstanding, with Glenn Close giving an utter knock-out performance, while Jane Anderson’s scripting emphasises the complexity behind the ostensibly simple to not only bring some incredibly nuanced characters to life but to also make some very sound statements on how the industry and the society around it views women. This is mature filmmaking in the truest sense of the term.

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