Warning: This review contains spoilers.

I enjoyed thinking about The Wife far more than I enjoyed watching it. If I were reviewing the film based strictly on its intentions, I might give it four stars; if I were reviewing it based strictly on the execution, I’d probably give it one. Directed by Swedish filmmaker Björn Runge, The Wife is prim, overly genteel, and visually dull. Runge tends to organize the frames around his actors, emphasizing the film’s emotional content, but since he and cinematographer Ulf Brantås seem uninterested in the expressive potential of faces and bodies, the shots lack dynamism. The acting is decent in a dry, Masterpiece Theater kind of way; one feels encouraged to applaud the craft rather than lose oneself in the characterizations. Because the performances are so calculated, the emotional outbursts on which the story hinges fail to make a dramatic impact. And for a film about a novelist, The Wife conveys very little sense of what it’s like to read or write.

Taken as a conversation starter, however, The Wife contains plenty of worthy ideas. Jane Anderson’s script (based on a novel by Meg Wolitzer) brings up pertinent questions about gender roles in the arts and whether they’ve changed over the last few generations. More important, the filmmakers introduce a certain amount of ambiguity with regard to the issues they bring up, encouraging viewers to take sides and debate them once the story ends. They also challenge viewers by revealing information about the characters gradually, so one has to revise his or her opinion of them several times before arriving at a final stance on the story.

Set in the early 1990s, The Wife begins when a famous American author, Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), learns that he’s going to win the Nobel Prize for literature. The distinction seems like the final touch on a perfect life: Joe and his wife, Joan (Glenn Close), have been married for decades and are still affectionate, even sexual, with each other; they have two well-adjusted grown children, one of whom, David (Max Irons), adores his father so much he wants to become an author himself; and literary critics always seem to be around to praise Joe for his work. Yet the filmmakers drop hints early on that there’s unhappiness lurking around the corners of Joe’s life. Joan has never had a career of her own, and most people view her solely in terms of her subservient relationship to her husband; David (who’s first seen trying to cajole Joe into expressing his thoughts about his son’s latest short story) senses that his father doesn’t take him seriously as a writer. The filmmakers raise the possibility that Joe’s happiness owes something to his feelings of superiority to the people around him, but their initially benign depiction of his life might lead you to excuse his arrogance as the result of being adulated for so long. In any case, the tensions between Joe, Joan, and David seem manageable—no one seems to be suffering as a result of them.

All this changes when the characters go to Sweden for Joe to accept his Nobel Prize, and The Wife starts uncovering some uncomfortable truths about the author. First, Joe behaves increasingly like a passive-aggressive jerk toward David; he provides his son with only the most basic feedback on his writing until pressured to say anything more, at which point the father becomes stingingly negative. Then, during an argument between the author and his wife, Joan brings up the fact that Joe has cheated on her repeatedly throughout their marriage. And crucially, flashbacks reveal that Joe never wrote any of his books; he’s been a front for the demure (and more talented) Joan all along. In another argument between husband and wife that occurs near the end of the film, Joe proposes that he come forward and reveal the truth about “his” writing now that it’s received the highest honor in fiction. Joan vehemently tells him not to, the argument intensifies, and Joe has a heart attack and dies. Flying back to the U.S. later on, Joan is confronted by a writer (Christian Slater) who wants to pen Joe’s biography and who has figured out the secret behind his success. The movie ends with her warning him not to publish the truth, saying she’ll sue him for libel if he does.

The revelations of The Wife raise as many questions as they answer. Was it wrong of Joan to allow Joe to publish her novels under his name? Was she justified in her fear of not being taken seriously as an author because of her gender? Was Joe wrong in going along with Joan’s idea and taking credit for his wife’s work? And was it wrong of him to wear the role of the great author so well, accepting praise that was never intended for him? The filmmakers stack the deck somewhat by making Joe a cad as well as a fraud, particularly given that the truth about his fraudulent authorship would diminish one’s opinion of him even if he weren’t an unfaithful husband. Still, they hardly close off debate, since they make it clear that Joan helped perpetuate the lie about his accomplishments and will continue to do so after his death.

Besides, it’s quite plausible that Joe might not possess any redeeming qualities—numerous revelations of the past few years have taught us that there are plenty of irredeemable men in the arts. Perhaps the most interesting thing about The Wife is its suggestion that, if Joe is an irredeemable fraud, he doesn’t bear sole responsibility for his bad behavior. Both Joe and Joan emerge as products of a culture that unquestioningly perpetuates (to the detriment of all) the notion of the infallible male genius. Consider the way Joe’s young female translator in Sweden fawns over him, ready to provide him with sexual favors; a female author Joan meets in college tells her straight out that the American literary world doesn’t care about women writers. By the end of The Wife, it’s clear that Joe is representative of a systemic problem; by framing his story in such grand terms, the filmmakers provide fuel for ambitious discussions.   v