Director: Bjorn Runge
Cast: Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce
There is a moment in The Wife in which the husband Joe Castleman, literary giant and Nobel prize winner, is regaling admirers with a story. The wife of the title, Joan, looks at him from across the room and signals that he has crumbs in his beard. He follows her instructions and discreetly wipes them. Their dynamic is clear – he’s the star. She’s the babysitter who holds his coat, makes sure he takes his medicine on time and sucks in the hurt when he casually has affairs. And yet when a slimy reporter who desperately wants to write Joe’s biography questions her about it, she says: Don’t paint me as a victim. I’m much more interesting than that.
Interesting doesn’t even begin to describe it. Joan, played masterfully by Glenn Close, resembles a calm sea that has tectonic plates shifting and a tsunami brewing beneath the surface. The film begins with a phone call when Joe finds out that he has won the Nobel prize. He insists that she get on the extension so she can hear the news with him. They jump up and down on the bed like five-year-olds. But observe Joan’s expressions closely – underneath the happiness and pride, there is something fierce and furious. Through precise expressions and body language, Close brilliantly captures Joan’s layers and secrets. She never spells out anything. But when you discover what these secrets are, you will want to re-watch the film only to see how perfectly she revealed and concealed her trauma.
The Wife has been adapted by Swedish director Björn Runge from Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel. The plot itself is a tad contrived and not always convincing but the performances power the film, giving it an emotional grip that doesn’t let up.
The Wife has been adapted by Swedish director Björn Runge from Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel. The plot itself is a tad contrived and not always convincing but the performances power the film, giving it an emotional grip that doesn’t let up. Jonathan Pryce as Joe offers strong support to Close. Joe is narcissistic and selfish but he’s also fragile and some part of him is intensely devoted to Joan. Christian Slater is perfectly pitched as a sleazeball journalist who will go to any extent to insert himself into the family and get the book he wants. At one point, he convinces Joan to get a drink with him. Their interaction, with her firmly pushing him back into his place, is delicious. The action also cuts back to 1958 when Joe and Joan first met, when she was a star student at Smith College and he, her writing professor. Close’s younger version is played by Annie Starke her real-life daughter. And Jeremy Irons’ son, Max Irons, plays the Castlemans’ son David, who is a struggling writer, desperate for a word of encouragement from his revered father.
Much of the action takes place in Stockholm where the Castlemans go for the Nobel prize ceremony. There is something slightly mournful about the city in December. With sweeping top shots, Runge captures the snowy beauty. But his real strength is the performances he elicits and the scenes he stages – especially the climactic showdown between husband and wife. Jocelyn Pook’s background score adds to the melancholy.
The Wife is an insight into long relationships, the way men and women heal and hurt each other. There are moments here that all husbands and wives will recognize. But the biggest reason to see this film is to experience the power of Glenn Close. She has won her seventh Oscar nomination for this performance. If you are the type who bets on the awards, I recommend you put your money on Close. This is going to be her year.
I’m going with four stars.