1879, Norway. A frustrated and belittled housewife decides to leave her ostensibly kind husband and children to try and find a life for herself after realizing that she has spent years living in the shadows. So goes the classic play by Henrik Ibsen, A Doll’s House, which shocked contemporary audiences who could scarcely believe that a woman would have the audacity and gumption to try and find her own place in the world. Fast-forward 139 years, and you have the same dilemma in The Wife.
The Wife is a film all about the intricate complications of worth. Joanie (Glenn Close), a dutiful wife, stands in the shadows whilst her husband Joe is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. It soon becomes apparent that it is actually Joanie herself that has been penning all of her husband’s books through the years, and Joe has been taking the credit, telling everybody that his wife “doesn’t write.”
This is my first issue. Joanie doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would submit herself and her talents to another just because one person told her that women shouldn’t write books as nobody pays attention to them (a sweeping statement as it is, even given the historical context). Joanie is warm, sardonically witty. Why did it take forty years for her to realize that her husband is as wizened and vacuous as the walnut shells he inscribes adulterous messages on to? Jonathan Pryce plays the role well with equal doses of pity and smarm, and Harry Lloyd (swoon) plays the young version of the character brilliantly – his hilariously dramatic and self-indulgent episodes reveal his fragile masculinity and ego, fulfilling the “artsy writer sadboy” trope with startling accuracy. With both Pryce and Lloyd in the film, it was a Game of Thrones-heavy cast; I half expected Khal Drogo to come thrusting in wearing leather breeches, but alas, no.
Another disappointingly trite theme of the film is how Joanie’s journey to self-discovery comes in the clumsiest of places; a wannabe biographer mansplaining to her that she is “tired of being invisible.” I wanted her to discover this on her own. Even when Joe passes away, she clings on to his false memory, refusing to go public with the whole literary lie. Close’s awkward giggles to hide her pain are so devastating, and her depersonalization is echoed in the camera slowly defocusing on her as the audience around her snap into focus, only reinforcing her heartbreaking invisibility – within herself and in her husband’s falsely curated world.
Echoing word-for-word Nora Helmer’s utterance in A Doll’s House, the film’s climax point is when Joanie declares, “I’m leaving you.” But she doesn’t – not really. The film’s theme was a little hackneyed as it is, and though Glenn Close’s performance was beautiful, the film itself seemed to lack redemptive or meaningful depth.