Most conservatives, upon hearing a description of the new film “The Wife,” would probably dismiss it as another form of Hollywood virtue-signaling. That would be a mistake. “The Wife” can actually offer many lessons for the Right. (Spoiler alert: in the discussion below I’m going to reveal the plot of the film.)
“The Wife,” based on Meg Wolitzer’s novel, is a film about a couple, Joe and Joan Castleman. It’s 1992 and novelist Joe, played by Jonathan Pryce, receives a call from Stockholm informing him that he has won the Nobel Prize in literature. His wife Joan, played brilliantly by Glenn Close, picks up another extension to hear the happy news, and her face reveals instantly that she is not just happy for Joe, she is overjoyed for herself.
Turns out, Joan is the primary author of all of Joe’s books, a secret she has kept for decades while he has soaked up the glory.
A plot line like this normally would be a giveaway that “The Wife” is standard clichéd Hollywood fare—here comes another indictment of an Old White Man, who selfishly pounced upon the real achievement of a woman and passed it off as his own. Joe, a fraud, colonized Joan’s talent when the two met in the 1950s when young Joe (Harry Lloyd), a creative writing instructor at Smith College, tried to mentor Joan (Annie Starke, Close’s real-life daughter). Joe is a jerk.
But this take is too easy. Joe is more than another just another example of SJW villain porn—a predictable target who safely can be destroyed by story’s end. “The Wife” actually offers several interesting points for conservatives to ponder.
One is the magnificent quality of the film itself. Conservatives love to target Hollywood, and with good reason. But if we’re going to be honest brokers, we have to admit that the left has produced skilled craftsmen, creative writers and brilliant actors, from Robert De Niro to Julia Roberts. Resenting talent is not a healthy solution to the liberal control of cultural institutions. Instead, our side should be training and supporting our own artists. We should be competing and thinking long term, perhaps even considering working with a few liberals for the sake of real art.
In “The Wife,” director Bjorn L. Runge wisely stays out of the way to let the script and the actors shine, but there are wonderful little touches that he and cinematographer Ulf Brants provide to highlight the movement of the film. One is the way light works in the film as a kind of symbolism. Light is a representation of truth, and when Joe and Joan are roaring across the Atlantic on the Concorde, a thin shaft of sunlight comes through the nearby window, striking Joe in the face. “I can’t see,” he says, foreshadowing stronger light to come.
The couple are soon bathed in the darkness of a Stockholm winter: “It’s only four o’clock!” Joe marvels while gazing out his dark hotel room window. Here the absence of light is just as telling as the bright rays of it on the airplane were.
When journalist Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater) arrives to start snooping around the Castlemans’ past, his face is illuminated. Finally Joe is forced to confront the truth of his sham prize, and the scene is saturated in an artificial light, the stock intentionally overexposed to symbolize the blinding and inescapable truth eating at Joe’s conscience. Joe is spent—like a vampire whose lair has been opened in daylight.
Still, Joe is not portrayed as monster so much as a deeply insecure and flawed man. Sure, he’s part ogre, but he’s also a man who begins to panic when he is young and his writing career doesn’t work out. Early on he is left to wonder how he can support his wife and child as his hopes fade and Joan’s talent outshines his own. Joan is also a complex character. “Don’t call me a victim,” she tells a snooping journalist. “I’m much more interesting than that.” Even as the slow boil of anger builds to an exploding rage at Joe for what he has robbed from her, she cannot throw shade on her need to love and protect him.
For conservatives in this political moment, it may also be said that “The Wife” offers an analog to the problem of nepotism and the buddy system within Conservative, Inc. Joe is like the Podhoretz/Goldberg/Kristol wing of the right—someone with limited talent who siphons the genius of a relative to acquire fame and fortune. His comeuppance is a blow on behalf of meritocracy, but not a simplistic one. And unlike the neocons, Joe actually does feel some shame about how he achieved his perch.