These two films hinge on the theme of non-writing male “writers.” The wives write the novels and the men take the credit. The films begin one hundred years apart, “Colette” in rural France in 1892, “The Wife” in the United States in 1992. Both depict marriage breakdowns mainly caused by the whale-sized egos and infidelities of the male non-writing half of the marriage. The films even use the same line – “What are we doing?” – to signify marital failure.
“The Wife” begins with the famed call from the Swedish Academy. Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. His wife, Joan (Glenn Close), rejoices with him, but when they head to Sweden for the ceremony it soon becomes clear that something is rotten in the state of Stockholm, or rather in the state of their marriage.
Flashbacks from the 1950s show Joan falling in love with her professor, Joe, although Lord knows why. He’s a foppish mediocrity, already married, who quotes Joyce to give himself literary street-cred, writes love messages on walnuts, and spouts clichés about the writing life (“a writer must write as he must breathe” – oh purlease).
She reads his feeble draft of a novel and fixes it to make it publishable. Success ensues, and so does a pattern of ghostwriting: she does the work while he brings up the kids and gives back-rubs. And he gets the credit. No one – not even the kids – knows that she’s the real writer, except for a sleazy would-be biographer, played by Christian Slater, who guesses the truth and shadows the couple all the way to Stockholm.
“The Wife,” based on Meg Wolitzer’s novel, is Glenn Close’s film. She carries it with a stylish haircut and a watchful gaze. But even she can’t make up for the emptiness at its heart. The problem is Pryce’s character. He’s just too pathetic to care about. His philandering is absurd. He even goes on the pull while he’s in Sweden. He’s also a cliché of every bad writer who ever lived: vain, unkempt, pretentious, and petty. The mystery is why a bright and beautiful woman like Joan was fooled in the first place. Worse, most of the scenes involving their son, David, are cringe-worthy. David is a frustrated writer desperate for Dad’s approval. Judging by his parents’ ages, he must be at least 25, but he acts 16. He sulks. He smokes dope. He uses the f word. And all because Daddy didn’t like his short story. Talk about kill your darlings.
As for Keira Knightley as Colette, she’s simply in the wrong film. Knightley, with her Home Counties accent and skittish ways, is a quintessential English rose, not a Parisian femme fatale. Her forte is superior trash, as the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise attests. In “Colette,” her bodice gets ripped at a theater performance, and you half expect Johnny Depp to come swinging in from off-stage, a knife between his teeth.
While the film does have something to say about women’s sexual emancipation – Colette, with her husband’s approval, has lesbian affairs – there’s no heat because, despite a terrific pair of cheekbones and a perma-pout, Knightley has no sex appeal. The film needed someone darker and more mysterious in this role. Imagine what Marion Cotillard would have done with it.
Having said that, “Colette” always holds the attention and is undoubtedly the better of the two films reviewed here. Dominic West, looking rather dashing in his three-piece suit, puts in a solid performance as Willy. He rescues Colette from her rural life, only to imprison her intellectually: realizing that her literary talent is the golden goose, he forces her to produce more and more, which he publishes under his name.
There’s also a strong performance from Fiona Shaw, probably the greatest Shakespearean actor alive. She lends the film gravitas, literally: she’s an earthy presence running a farm while those flighty Parisian salonistes float around with their heads in the clouds.
Both films represent something of a dream for writers. Which novelist today wouldn’t look back wistfully at a time when a publisher’s advance could buy you a country house? And who wouldn’t fancy a Nobel on the mantelpiece? But while “Colette” is at least passable entertainment, “The Wife,” for me, goes straight to the remainder shelves.