The Wife is a heart-wrenching exploration of one woman’s sublimation to her perceived notions of patriarchy. Beset by a cynical female mentor early on in her writing life, Joan decides to pursue her art behind closed doors and out-of-sight of potential critics.
This reduction in self, a minimizing based on the probability of failing to break through a glass ceiling, lies at the very heart of Joan’s personal Throughline. This notion leads her to justify keeping fuss down to a minimum because she doubts anyone would ever take her talent seriously. Boiling deep within her, this imbalance of perception must continually be suppressed behind the mask of merely being considered “the wife.”
It also provides ample fodder for eager biographer Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater).
Nathaniel has an idea—he thinks Joan wrote all of her husband’s books and he wants to get the exclusive scoop. His constant prodding into the private life of Joan and her husband peels back those layers of justification shrouding her true self, leaving her no other alternative than to grow beyond them.
Joan sheds those weighty husks and emerges reborn. Her proclamation that “I’m a Kingmaker” is a clear indication that she thinks now in terms of potential—her own potential to move the world with her image center stage. No longer willing to reduce herself to a concept, she faces the blank page with a lightened and hopeful heart.
The Wife is a character study that still manages to form the foundation for a complete narrative. Often, Authors become so enchanted with the central character of a piece that they forget to fill in the blanks that give meaning to character growth. Presumably, the Authors of this film intend to argue that Joan was right in growing out of justifications, and they do a fair job of supporting that case.
Complete stories change people’s minds, character studies do not. The weak argument within the latter opens up space for Oscar-worthy performances at the expense of more significant meaning.
In this respect, The Wife is similar to Can You Ever Forgive Me? in that, it is another character study taking to task the sublimation of a woman’s creative potential. As such, the film excels when it offers Glenn Close ample opportunity to execute stellar and moving close-ups. It lags days later when one considers if the experience was nothing more than a masterclass in Acting.
Structurally speaking, The Wife is an example of an Influence Character somewhat detached from the Relationship Story Throughline. While in theory, this is a perfectly legitimate approach, in practice it can lead to the Audience feeling slightly emotionally disconnected from the argument being made. Glenn Close’s performance supersedes this deficiency in every way—which is why you find her front and center of any awards for the film—but it still leaves the path open for some critical dissent.
Because he plays such a small role within the Relationship Story Throughline, Nathaniel comes across as a storytelling device rather than a character. He pops up once an Act to push Joan’s buttons, then fades away back into the shadows. Their scene within the cafe is beautiful and revealing—but one scene does not a Throughline make. That notion that something might be missing from the film is partly due to this lack of development in their relationship.
Thankfully, the marriage between Joan and her husband steps in to secure the emotional side of the argument, but only temporarily. Their “dalliances” on the side—Joan and Nathaniel, John and the photographer—while short-lived, fulfill that part of the narrative that requires conflict in the physical realm. Their unhappiness leads them to “cheat” by physically encountering another.
Again, these examples do not maintain the kind of development needed to make them wholly meaningful, but they do give the semblance of something greater being said with the story. And they do work nicely in terms of balancing out the more psychological concerns of the central plot.
Nathaniel plays the Protagonist to the Story Goal of the idea of Joan as a ghostwriter. Her husband plays Antagonist. Nathaniel pursues and gets everyone to consider the Story Goal of Conceiving. John avoids and refuses to reconsider for fear of the Story Consequence of Learning the source of his actual success.
While there are other indicators of reductive thinking amongst other husbands and their wives, the real objective focus is on their son David (Max Irons). His impatience and his father’s reluctance to rush into a conversation is a perfect example of the Overall Story Issue of Expediency. Minimizing the son’s anger to merely an after-effect of “getting high” reinforces the already precedent Overall Story Problem of Reduction.
As the principal point-of-view with the Changed Resolve, Joan shares this element of conflict with her Main Character Problem of Reduction. Her recognition that she produces Kings is an indication of her Main Character Solution of Production.
As Influence Character, Nathaniel sees all. His subtle judgments and criticism of the Castleman’s arrangement work well for his Influence Character Problem of Evaluation.
Yet, the husband also steps in to sometimes fulfill this role. His self-hatred and self-criticism towards being an offensive writer help to carry this Element into the narrative along with the Influence Character Issue of Attempt. He is quite literally attempting to do something he cannot do.
Whether or not this is a valid source of influential conflict or merely reasoning for Joan’s justification, John’s grasping for something outside his means resonates nicely with Joan’s Main Character Issue of Doubt.
The Wife is a story of Personal Triumph. This type of ending sees a Story Outcome of Failure meeting a Story Judgment of Good. Nathaniel fails to convince anyone that his approach is the right one, and Joan returns home at peace with the tremendous weight she carried lifted off her shoulders.
The Wife is less a coming-of-age story, and more an act of a rebellion—a refusal to put up with an outdated way of thinking. This dynamic of the genre—the purpose, if you will, of the film—points to a Main Character Growth of Stop. It’s not Joan’s growth into a more positive way of thinking that is important, but rather her growth out of a debilitating and destructive mindset.