The final moments of The Wife could’ve gone either way. I sat watching, cringing, expecting that the film was about to make good on its promise of being as explicit and obvious as possible about every single little thing it had going for it. But in that scene, director Björn Runge finally let his movie and characters breathe for once and let something go unsaid. Not unexplained, since the entire story up to that point had built toward that finale. It’s just that The Wife spends its entire runtime re-explaining its basic premise and re-revealing its secrets to the audience. So it was nice to have at least one scene, arguably the most important of the film, acknowledge that we are indeed intelligent enough to have kept up with its simple-enough narrative, to read between the lines and feel the dramatic punch that the film is trying to land as the screen cuts to black.
All of the credit for that moment goes to Glenn Close. As The Wife of the title, she carries the film almost entirely on her own. Even the great Jonathan Pryce is only seen through her point of view, the better for us to size him up and see him as he is, rather than how he presents himself to the world. And that right there is the crux of the story. Pryce, as a renowned author about to receive the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature, is all professorial pretension and narcissistic gatekeeping. He moves through life expecting praise and notoriety, so when the news arrives that he’s won the award, that’s all it takes for him to start feeding his own ego-driven habits (flirting with young photographers, baiting others into telling him how great he is, etc.) while at the same time conveniently not even thinking about what it took to get him to this stage of his life and career.
That’s where the wife comes in. Close, at first presented as the typical long-suffering spouse of the artistic genius, is quickly revealed to be much more. More than once, her quick wit proves to be more mature and intelligent than others in the room might realize. She’s walking around wearing kid gloves and lets everyone else remain blissfully unaware of this fact. Her life has been one long act of self-sacrifice. Once having dreamt of being a famous and respected author herself, she recognized early on that her husband’s insatiable need for attention and validation would never have allowed them both to enjoy their careers. So he got to be the big-shot writer and she got to be his wife.
To give away anything more from that point on would be spoiling everything. The film itself struggles once its major “twist” is first suggested, then belabored before finally having to be screamed by the characters at each other. For one thing, it’s kind of the only possible twist a film like this can have, but the real issue is that The Wife doesn’t allow its characters to simply exist in this world. Close and Pryce do great work given their characters’ interesting but limited parameters, but Runge just can’t quite seem to get a hold of whose side he’s on. The film almost doubles as the husband in this scenario, which is bizarre in the extreme. For a film about how powerful men are incapable of recognizing and appreciating the contributions of women, though, I guess it’s not that surprising.
Rated R for language and some sexual content. Now playing at Carolina Cinemark and The Fine Arts Theatre.