‘The Politician’s Wife’: Not ‘The Good Wife’

Castleton, VT.: St. Mark's Episcopal Church 4/15/12

Once in a very long while – four times in my life – an actor leaps from the screen and into my deepest fears.  I can never look at them objectively again.

Yes, I know the difference between acting and actors.  But in my experience these performances are very different from mere great acting.  In the order I saw them, they are:

 • Ronald Reagan as the man who sets off the killings in the remake of ‘The Killers’ (1964);

 • Fred MacMurray as the cowardly intellectual in ‘The Caine Mutiny’ (1954);

 • Anjelica Huston as the spurned mistress in ‘Crimes & Misdemeanors’ (1990); and

 • Juliet Stevenson as the revenging daughter and wife in the BBC4 miniseries ‘The Politician’s Wife’ (1995)

           Watching ‘The Good Wife’, a current favorite, often brings to mind ‘The Politician’s Wife’.  So, last night I watched it again.

Both wives learn of their husbands’ betrayals and suffer the indignities of political ‘management’.  Both have a son and a daughter they try to protect.  And, both were more important to their husbands’ successes than they realised before they became objects of media frenzies.

The British show has a very different shape and story arc from the American.  The first half of its 180 minutes could be the back story of ‘The Good Wife’, how Alicia dealt with the early days of her husband’s disgrace.

But the betrayals of ‘The Politician’s Wife’ are far more profound than that of ‘The Good Wife’.  As she realises the dimensions of her figurative and literal rape and of her sale by her father, she begins a transformation that will take her from ankle length baggy country dresses to above-the-knee tailored suits.  Bright red lipstick will become her.

‘The Politician’s Wife’ becomes as implacable as the protagonists of the great Jacobean dramatists – Beaumont & Fletcher, John Webster and John Ford.[1]  Her triumph is complete, terrifying and modern.

As ‘The Politician’s Wife’ Juliet Stevenson is well-beyond ‘convincing’.  So far beyond is she that watching her play a wise-cracking and wise dresser in ‘Being Julia’ (2004), a superb light-hearted comedy of revenge, I kept expecting Stevenson to destroy her mistress.  Her presence troubles me even after multiple viewings.

‘The Politician’s Wife’ is not for the squeamish or prudish.[2]  It offers none of the comforts, the softness or the diversions of ‘The Good Wife’.  But what a story!  And, what a performance!!


1.  Like the Jacobean plays on which it draws, some grounding in the day’s politics – the late Thatcher and John Major years – will help understanding considerably.  So will a dictionary of English political terms.

2.  The UK version could not be shown on US TV then or now.  Some moments that seem gratuitous prove essential to the character development.