By Bill Mazzola
September 17, 2018
As The Wife begins, Joan Castleman (Glenn Close) and her husband Joe, a renowned novelist, have just settled in for the evening when a life changing phone call sets the film’s chain of events in motion. Joe has won the Nobel Prize in literature. The couple is riotously happy– jumping on the bed happy– with Joe lustily declaring “I’ve won the Nobel!” The scene is staged brilliantly– the viewer immediately wonders when Joe is exclaiming he won the Nobel– should he be saying we? That question is what permeates the rest of Swedish director Bjorn Runge’s searing marital drama, spurred on by a bravura performance from one of the screen’s most enduring legends, Glenn Close.
You see, Joan was also once a writer, but has spent years sublimating her own wants, needs and, yes, literary ambitions to be the good wife to a “great man.” While the Nobel triumph is a career-capping accomplishment for Joe, it is the catalyst for an identity crisis within Joan that begins the moment the couple arrives in Stockholm, Sweden, where Joe will receive his prize. As praise, adoration and congratulations are steeped on Joe, Joan is pushed into the same shadow within which she has lived her whole life. We are treated to a cat-and-mouse game of psychological torture as The Wife rolls out in a series of parties and encounters in which Joan must endure one sexist indignity after another. It is a credit to Close who is subtle to the point of being unnerving and never telegraphs what she’s feeling. She positively boils with self control.
Runge smartly breaks up the present day schmoozing with flashbacks to 1958 detailing how the Castleman’s met when Joan was a creative writing student and Joe was her professor. Young Joan, played smartly (and with a wink) by Close’s real life daughter Annie Starke, has an affair with the older Joe that results in the breakup of his marriage. Most of these flashbacks are drawn out of Joan by Nathaniel Bone, an investigative reporter angling to be Joe’s biographer, human slime played to disruptive perfection by Christian Slater. Soon after their torrid affair, Joan becomes Wife Number Two, a wife with constant suspicion as she once caused Joe to stray from marriage. The same roving eye could cause Joe to stray from from her, and stray he does, right up until the present day Nobel Prize ceremony.
Why does Joan stay with her smug husband? Why does she continue to bury her own wants and ambitions? Of course, there are the typical reasons. Grown children? Check. Joe and Joan have a pregnant daughter, Susannah (Aliz Wilton Regan), as well as a hopeful writer son David (Max Irons) begging for encouragement from his father. But Joan’s reasons for being the perfect trophy wife go a bit further under the surface than that. It is a credit to Jane Anderson’s understated screenplay, an adaptation of the celebrated novel by Meg Wolitzer, that the dialogue never simply lays her reasons out bare. The writer and director trust their lead actress to convey what needs to be conveyed to the audience without spelling it out for them, and the result is a richer viewing experience. The film is crafty, subtle and utterly hypnotic.
The supporting class around Close is on point. Jonathan Pryce is in top form as the cantankerous, pompous and quite insecure Joe Castleman. The aforementioned Christian Slater oozes smarm as the journalist prodding and poking at the Castleman’s marriage. But it is through Glenn Close’s performance that the emotional arc of the film is brought to life. Emotion is translated in the most subtle of ways: a look here, a narrowing of the eyes there, a quick tightening of the lips. It is acting at its absolute finest and a captivating, magnetic performance from one of the silver screen’s greatest actresses. Glenn Close has been nominated for six Academy Awards without winning one. I’m not a wagering man but if I were, I know who I’d bet on this year, and it’s not even Close.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5