Early in “The Wife,” celebrated author Joe Castleman gets the call telling him he’s won the Nobel Prize in literature and he begins jumping on the bed. “I won the Nobel! I won the Nobel!” he crows.
His wife Joan, played by Glenn Close, does not join in. In fact, it looks like she just wants to get to the bathroom to brush her teeth. The rest of “The Wife” explains why: Since the very beginning of Joe’s career, Joan has been doing the bulk of “his” writing, all the while playing the part of the dutiful wife.
“One of my favorite scenes was when we arrive in Stockholm and I’m just holding [Joe’s] coat in the background,” Close says. “I’ve been around men who make women feel invisible and it’s not a nice place to be in. But it’s something that she has accepted.”
Joan may not be in the background for long; Nathaniel, a journalist played by Christian Slater (TV’s “Mr. Robot”), strongly suspects that she is the actual writer of Joe’s books, and he wants the world to know about her — and about himself.
“I think he wants a bit of both,” Slater says. “He’s on this journalistic pursuit to get the truth, he thinks he’s got something, he’s found some evidence and he wants to pursue that. And also he wants to get his own prize. A lot of journalists, and actors, we’re looking for that thing that will satisfy us and give us attention and acclaim.”
For Joan, who is utterly circumspect in her answers to Nathaniel’s probing questions, “I don’t think it’s about the acclaim,” says Close, a six-time Oscar nominee who has yet to win. “Is recognition different than acclaim? She realizes what she’s done, and her husband hasn’t ever acknowledged that.”
The 1992-set drama flashes back to the beginning of Joe (Jonathan Pryce) and Joan’s marriage in the late 1950s, when young Joan (played by Close’s daughter, Annie Starke) was writing her own work. After a talented but overlooked female author warns her that novels by women can never reach a large audience, Joan moves to “editing” books by Joe, her former creative writing professor. It’s not long before both silently and implicitly agree that Joan is simply a better writer than Joe. She takes over, losing her name but keeping her work.
“She’s been complicit,” Close says. “It lets her write, and she is happiest when she’s at that desk, writing. It’s something she has accepted, but I think in the film [she has] a growing awareness [that] he almost believes all this. And she can’t deal with that.”
So he gets the medal and she gets to watch. The main question of “The Wife” is whether she’ll ever get the recognition she deserves — or even if she wants it.