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Films explore troubled family relationships

By Leonard Heldreth
The films this month includes a conflict that affects a writer and his talented wife, and an exploration of gay conversion therapy.

THE WIFE

Swedish director Björn Runge’s film, The Wife, explores the dynamics of a long-time marriage in which the wife has the talent but the husband has the fame. Based on Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel, the wife, Joan Castleman (Glenn Close), and the husband, Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), play a couple whose circumstances have added new stress to a marriage already under several strains.
The new stress is that Joe has just won the Nobel Prize for literature, and although both are pleased at this event (they jump up and down on the bed), the additional scrutiny and fame forces them to reconsider the roles they have played for many years. Joe has been the important public figure, and Joan has been the supporting wife who is always there to do all the things that Joe has no time for, like taking care of his health and picking up after himself. Joe manages to squeeze in time for dalliances with younger women, an activity that Joan has taught herself to ignore (a dalliance with Joan, in fact, led to Joe’s first divorce).
The couple have two children: Susannah (Alix Wilton Regan), who’s married and very pregnant, and David (Max Irons–Jeremy’s son), an aspiring writer desperate for his father’s approval. The other major character is Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), a slick journalist who has already signed a contract to write a biography of Joe, and slithers up to the Castlemans as they fly to Stockholm on the Concorde (it’s 1992) to accept Joe’s prize. Joe is repelled by Bone’s intrusion and refuses to talk to him; Joan, more diplomatic, continues her role of dealing with Joe’s problems, and she also clearly does not want Bone digging too deeply into the past.
The past, shown in flashbacks, is 1958, where a young Joan is played by Annie Starke, Glenn Close’s actual daughter; at Smith College she’s the star pupil in a creative writing class taught by potential novelist Joe Castleman (Harry Lloyd). Writing in the 1960s is basically a male game, as a published but not successful author (Elizabeth McGovern, Downton Abbey) assures her. Following this advice, Joan abandons her own ambitions, especially when she senses the threat her ability poses to the fragile self-esteem of her husband. Or so it seems.
In Stockholm, as Joe prepares for receiving the prize, the officials offer Joan a chance to go shopping or have a spa treatment, opportunities which she declines, especially when the sees Linnea (Karin Franz Korlof), the young girl the Swedes have assigned to track Joe and take pictures of him. While Joe is occupied with rehearsals, Nathaniel Bone buys Joan a drink in the hotel bar and tries to get further information from her, hinting at some major revelation he thinks he has discovered. This sparring match between Bone and Joan is one of the high points of the film.
Gradually, as Joan becomes more frustrated with the way she is being treated and Joe keeps thanking her for her support, the steam builds to a blow-up and Joan stalks out of the Nobel dinner, feigning illness. She and Joe have a fight in the hotel room, and Bone’s suspicions take on a greater reality, as Joan explains to her son that she will explain it all to him when they get home. What Joan will do when they get home is left unclear, and that’s as close to a resolution as the film achieves, even though Bone does write his biography and reveals what he thinks.
Part of the fun of the movie is watching the rituals imposed on the Nobel winners–learning how to bow to royalty, dealing with press conferences, and partaking of a candlelight breakfast served in their bedrooms by young girls in flimsy robes singing “Santa Lucia.”
The best part of the film is the acting, and Glenn Close is phenomenal. Maintaining her “official” face while letting just enough of her anger show, she steals the film and should have gotten the Academy Award in her seventh nomination. Pryce is also excellent, and Christian Slater combines lizard-like charm with ambition to create an impressive picture of the bad side of investigative journalism. The other actors range from adequate to fine.
The Wife is a complex exploration of how choices in life, in love, and in careers affect this co-dependent marriage.

BOY ERASED

Boy Erased is based on Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same title; Joel Edgerton adapted the memoir, acts in the film, and directed it. Jared Eamons, a college student, confesses to his father that he has doubts about his sexual orientation, and they agree that he should try gay conversion therapy. Although there are no standard programs, since it’s not a recognized psychological therapy, most programs seem to be a combination of twelve-step AA, religious dogma, dubious science, and physical stress. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have outlawed conversion therapy, which still leaves a lot of young people vulnerable.
The film follows Lucas Hedges’s first few days at the Love in Action program until he finally sees through the hokum and, with his mother’s help, escapes. One of the strongest aspects of the film is the struggle that each of his parents have with accepting him.
The father, Marshall (Russell Crowe), runs a car dealership and is a minister; the mother, Nancy (Nicole Kidman), is at first subservient to her husband’s desires, but later confronts him to save her son. Only a local doctor assures him that he is perfectly all right. The acting is solid from all concerned, even from director Edgerton, who plays Sykes, the head of the therapy session (watch the final credits to see what happened to the real Sykes).
If there is a problem with the film, I felt that it lost some of its tension in places and was perhaps less traumatic in its presentation of the therapy than I expected.
(All films reviewed are available as DVDs from local stores.)

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