The Wife

How shall we see this picture?  This is a letter from a fan, on the one hand.  Bette and I saw The Wife partly because Glen Close’s performance was getting very high praise–fully justified, I can now say.  But what is it about?

There are so many interwoven plots that it becomes unusually clear that when you wife 1say”what is it about?,” you are choosing one strand as the principal one and relegating the others to a supporting role. Not all movies are so complex or so morally salient that they force this choice on a reviewer, but I think this one is.

Imagine that it is Oscar night and the several ways of understanding the essential meaning of this film are the candidates and that some Hollywood beauty and I—they don’t require the men to be beautiful, I am glad to say—are about to reveal the winner. She says, “And the winner is….” and turns to me and I fumble with the envelope and finally pull it out and say, “A Deal with the Devil Gone Bad.”  That is the way of understanding the plot that just won.  It won my vote, at least.

The Deal

The seductive power of the deal with the Devil is that you get all the stuff you want right now and the Devil doesn’t get what he wants until the end. So it has the “buy now, pay later” rhythm that Americans seem to like so much.

The deal is made when the Joe and Joan Castleman were young. The adult Joe and Joan, who are the real subjects of the story, are played by Jonathan Pryce and Glen Close. The young Joe and Joan are played by Harry Loyd and Annie Starke (shown here). So it is the young Joe and Joan who make the deal and the old Joe and Joan who pay the price. Or, another way to say it is that Joan has been paying the price for a long time now and that is Joe who pays the price at the end.

wife 6The time when the deal is made is quite clear in the film. [1] It comes when young Joan says to young Joe, “Do you want me to fix it?” Joe is a college professor and a writer. He is very good at conceiving a story and laying out the crucial events. But he has no gift at all for developing characters or for effective dialogue. Those are the gifts that she has. The manuscript in question is on the way to the printer so the question, “Do you want me to fix it?” has some urgency to it.

He says Yes. She fixes it. The publisher loves it. Now what?

The film is not as clear after this point, which occurs, you recall, as a flashback. It isn’t inadvertence, I am sure; it is a choice of narratives. That rubs me a little, not because I disagree with their choice, but because the meaning of the narrative they chose depends, for me, on the alternative narrative.  What are they saying this story is not?

This “alternative narrative” is not the product of my imagination. It is a narrative they made plausible by the way they introduced the story and did not rule out in the way they developed it. If they didn’t rule it out, does that mean than they are denying it or that they lost interest in it or just that they hoped the audiences wouldn’t notice. I’m really not sure.

The Narratives

In any case, here they are. As you will see, they describe two entirely plausible narratives, both of which find support in the film as distributed.

Narrative #1

That moment—the “do you want me to fix it” moment—continues through their life together. He does what he does. He get these absolutely terrific plot ideas, which he doesn’t know how to develop. She “fixes it” by giving real force to the characters and by creating lively [2] dialogue. The plot idea plus the fixes make a series of really great novels. They have commercial success and they also, as the presenter at the Nobel ceremony says, “challenge the form of the modern novel.” [3]

Not only does Joe do this part, his part, he also is the public face of the partnership. She is private; he is public. She is shy; he is gregarious. She withdraws; he schoozes.

The result of this intricately collegial partnership is years of best-selling novels and academic acclaim. And a well-funded life. And a dysfunctional family. [4]

Narrative #2

The “fix it” moment is the tripwire that dooms the rest of their life. There is no evidence in the rest of the story that Joe continues to make the contribution he first made on the plot ideas. “Fix it” becomes “I will write the books for which you will become famous.” In this story, she is the writer—she does all the parts that lead to these great novels—and he is the public face of her work.

That might be what they want. There is a brief scene that suggests the “women writers”wife 2 are not taken seriously. That would mean that she could not—really would not be permitted to—play all the parts the successful author would have to play. She is denied all the public parts by a prejudice against women authors. That gives a social criticism dimension to what would otherwise just be a deal between a husband and a wife.

And with that additional irritant, her resentment as a woman—not just as Joan Castleman—could be much sharper. She might imagine that she had the same control of her resentment as she would have as Joan Castleman, the wife, but in fact, she would not. The categorical resentment would mingle with the personal resentment to make a much more potent emotional stew.

In any case, their life requires that she retreats to the study and writes his books for eight hours a day, while he takes care of the kids and the house and pays the bills and so on. It is the kind of arrangement that would cause no one to blink if the roles were reversed, but if the roles were reversed it would be the writer who is receiving all the recognition, not the “nanno.” [5]

So this deal, which has become a life, is a lie and keeping the lie gets harder and harder© Meta Film London ltd to do. The son wants to be “a writer like my dad,” except that his dad really isn’t a writer. Maybe not much of a dad either, at least not for David. And with the Nobel, comes the kind of scrutiny a biographer brings to the job. Obviously, a good biographer will trip over all these carefully maintained fictions.

And the deal is also harder because although Joan Castleman knows she made this deal and knows her livelihood is based on it, can’t quite square her oblivion with his fame. And with his fame comes his affairs, some more discreet than others, of course. She can’t help knowing that it is her skill—in this version of the story—that produces the fame that he trades in for affairs with pretty young women. And she can’t help resenting it, although she tries.

And the winner is…

…anyone who goes to see this wonderful film.

As a moviegoer, I have to tell you that I saw both of these stories at the same time. Both are incomplete, in the sense that neither uses all the information the plot provides. I think the makers really prefer Narrative #2, but they didn’t deal with the plausibilities they offered for Narrative #1, so I had a hard time letting it go.

It is an absolutely superb movie. Jonathan Pryce and Glen Close are very good and their performances require a subtle touch. We need to see how thin the skin of his bravado is, and we do. We need to see how powerful, beneath the determined efforts to be a team player, her resentments are and we do.

I wish they made more movies like this.

[1] The Devil, as is fitting in a story like this, is not as clear.
[2] As I recall, the word she used for his dialogue was “wooden.”
[3] Not an exact quote, but it is close and the focus is on the right thing.
[4] In this narrative, the worst of the family crises is caused by the unavailability of Joan Castleman to her son, David.
[5] Just playing, really. What if “nanny” were given a masculine suffix?

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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