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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



The Wife, Review: The Bitter Half

The Wife, Review: The Bitter Half

It is easy to get swayed emotionally and empathise with the apparent underdog in this simple tale of a complex relationship. Only when you distance yourself, get down to analysing the issues and assessing the narrative, do you realise that the film did not have too much to say, and that the vulnerabilities of the characters cover a convenient screenplay. Performances, undeniably, are above par, and the film may also be seen for its intensity, focus and ably measured flow.

Beginning in 1992, the film has its story rooted in the America of 1958. Joan Archer (Annie Starke) first meets Joseph Castleman (Harry Lloyd), a handsome young married Jewish professor at Smith, a women’s college. Although already an accomplished (if unpublished) writer, Joan is awed by her faculty, Joseph's personality. Joan encounters a published alumna author (Elizabeth McGovern), whose cynical views on opportunities for female writers disheartens Joan. The author reveals that nobody bought her book, and that the 1,000 copies that were sold were all bought by her relatives, who were handsomely reimbursed. Two years later, Joseph gets fired for having an affair with Joan, his marriage starts failing, and his first attempt at writing a novel turns out to be a near disastrous one.

Joan takes up the job of a secretary at a publishing house, observes how the all-male editors dismiss women writers, but are keen on publishing works of male minorities, like Jews and Blacks. At home, when Joan criticises Joseph's work, he threatens to end his relationship with her, claiming she cannot love "a hack". Joan insists that she respects him, even though she feels that his writing needs to be fixed, which she does. The work, titled The Walnut, deriving its title from Joseph’s habit of handing out autographed walnuts, is published, thanks to Joan’s contacts and perseverance, and becomes a bestseller.

In 1992, Joseph (Jonathan Pryce) wins the Nobel prize in Literature, although Joan (Glenn Close), his wife, seems less than happy about the honour. Their son David (Max Irons), who idolises his father, seeks Joseph's approval for his first short story. David is travelling with his parents to Stockholm, along with his sister Susannah (Alix Wilton Regan). Also on board the same plane is Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), a biographer with a taste for scandal. Bone is bent on writing Castleman’s biography, though Castleman refuses to give him permission.

Based on Meg Wolitzer’s novel of the same name, The Wife has screenplay by Jane Anderson (writer, actress, producer; It Could Happen to You, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio). Detailing is a given in most works based on books, and The Wife is no exception. In fact, the run-up to the Nobel prize-giving ceremony is so detailed, including a rehearsal, that you wish it was under-written. Except for that portion, we do not have any characters who would not have a direct bearing on the story. Even the limousine driver is made to perform an additional chore. A predictable yet commendable organic unity comes through in the manner in which the couple celebrate their first, and their latest, success, in their bedroom. Things do get hurried in the second half, as layer upon layer is unpeeled and the hunky-dory, caring and sharing, prim and proper dialogue exchanges turn acerbic. Given the plot, there were only two twists possible, and both come as no surprises.

Swedish director Björn Runge, a Silver Bear winner at Berlin, makes a good debut on the American screen, choosing material that could take a leaf (just one) out of compatriot Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. If you let the simmering lava of pent-up discontent and the picture perfect superciliousness clash into a fusion and fission of polarised personalities, you are likely to enjoy the film most. But it must be noted that when the woman author bemoans the absence of female novelists, back in 1958, there were indeed quite a few who had been published. You also wonder about the illogicality of Joan in marrying Joseph, and the director dismissing it off when the he asks her, in 1992, after a heated argument, why she married him in the first place. You are also denied any real flavour of the Castleman books, either as screen images or excerpts being read. All we get to hear is a James Joyce quote. Twice.

A young man asking a woman what is she doing on Saturday night might mean the obvious in most films. Not so here. He is married, and a father, and the question relates to her willingness to baby-sit! The child is still tiny, and you wonder what is going on. Does baby-sitting really mean looking after babies as young as a few weeks old? Joan agrees, and when she is alone with the baby, whispers in its ear, “I am falling in love with your father”.  Well, both scenes may be odd, even contrived, but they are new takes on old situations. And as stated earlier, the two twists in the end are seen coming a long way before. Moreover, they are not as gently handled as the rest of the film.

Right from the first frame, Glenn Close seems so very close to the late Robin Williams, in looks, manner and demeanor. An unfair comparison, considering they belong to opposite genders, but the fact is too obvious to ignore. Amazingly, George Roy Hill discovered Close on Broadway and asked her to audition with Robin Williams for a role in The World According to Garp, which would become her first film role. It earned Close her first Oscar nomination. Guess what was her role in the film? She played Robin Williams' mother, despite being just four years older. A Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for The Wife bear testimony to the immense talent that is Glenn Close. She was 70 when she did this film. And, in the movie, you can spot at least seventy shades of emotions that get enmeshed as a mosaic on her ever so malleable visage. Pushing her out of the Cruela De Vil (101 Dalmatians) and Alex Forrest (Fatal Attraction) moulds is not going to be easy, but do give the De Vil her due.

If Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce (Pirates of the Caribbean, G.I. Joe) has not earned the encomiums he deserves, blame it on the sympathy factor, sympathy for Glenn Close, that is. Almost parallel to Close’s screen-time, he would technically end up as a supporting actor. (Capri Hollywood Film Festival gave him the Best Supporting Actor Award). Yes, Gary Oldman was the first choice, but Pryce has more than earned his price. A word of friendly advice here--do discount the end while measuring the acting abilities of the lead pair. It takes away from their dramatic fluency till then. Another nice piece of casting is Christian Slater (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Interview with the Vampire, Broken Arrow, Hard Rain, Pump Up the Volume, True Romance). He manages to keep you guessing about his morals and scruples, while appearing “completely transparent”, as Joan remarks. Annie Starke, Harry Lloyd, Max Irons, Elizabeth McGovern, and Alix Wilton Regan lend good support.

No sex, no violence, deleted expletives It would not get the UA Certification otherwise), a single instance of marijuana intake, a suggested attempt at “indiscretion”, many close-ups, and moral dilemmas—all these add up to a very personal film that had potential to be great. Nevertheless, it is definitely worth a watch.

Rating: ***


P.S.: The Wife has nothing in common with the 1963 film, The Prize, starring Paul Newman, although in both films, the leading man is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and travels from America to Sweden to receive it.

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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