D: Björn L. Runge / 100m
Cast: Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Max Irons, Christian Slater, Harry Lloyd, Annie Starke, Elizabeth McGovern
Connecticut, 1992. Joseph Castleman (Pryce) is an esteemed American author who is woken early one morning to learn that he is being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He’s over the moon, and so is his wife, Joan (Close), but there is tension from their son, David (Irons), who has written his first short story and is waiting for his father to offer his opinion, something Joseph seems reluctant to do. The three travel to Stockholm for the prize giving ceremony, and discover on their flight the presence of another writer, Nathaniel Bone (Slater), who has made a career out of scandalous biographies, and who has chosen Joseph as his next subject. Joseph and Joan want nothing to do with him, but once in Stockholm, and with Joan displaying a degree of unhappiness that Bone spots, she and Bone spend time talking over drinks. Bone has a theory about Joseph’s work that Joan rebuffs, but it’s one that he also repeats to David. As the ceremony nears, Joan’s unhappiness begins to express itself more and more, and David decides to challenge them both over Bone’s theory…
Adapted from the 2003 novel by Meg Wolitzer, The Wife provides Glenn Close with her best role in years, and provides us with her best performance in years. As the long-suffering wife of acclaimed author Joseph, Close’s Joan is a model of reticence and humility, refusing to share in her husband’s limelight, but happy for the recognition it affords them as a couple. But beneath Joan’s placid, almost stoic exterior, their marriage, and an arrangement between them that they’ve kept a secret for decades, is beginning to take its toll and Joan is struggling to maintain the façade she’s held in place for so long. Astute viewers will quickly work out just what that secret is, and combined with Bone’s suspicions and flashbacks to when Joseph and Joan met, even less astute viewers will be able to piece together the cause of Joan’s unhappiness. But with that comes a question that the movie can’t quite answer: why has it taken all this time – over thirty years – for her sorrow to manifest itself – and so abruptly? There’s an inevitable confrontation between Joan and Joseph, but though there are accusations and remonstrations aplenty, that unanswered question remains. And as well constructed as it is (the story is told in non-linear fashion), this leaves the movie with a great big hole in it.
But while the narrative stumbles at times, and David is depicted as something of an insecure brat, Björn L. Runge’s direction compensates for all this by taking Jane Anderson’s screenplay and making it into an austere, emotionally repressed drama where the power struggle within a marriage is displayed almost forensically, from Joseph’s constant reminders that Joan doesn’t write (even though we know she does), to the subtle ways in which Runge has Joseph keep Joan behind him, or just off to the side while praising her at the same time. Runge and his DoP, Ulf Brantås, use the bright airy spaces within the Castelemans’ hotel room, and the claustrophobic interiors of the ceremony events to highlight just how hemmed in Joan has become, that it doesn’t matter what her environment is, she’s still uncomfortable. Allied to Close’s stellar performance, this allows the audience to witness the slow, uncomfortable realisation to dawn for Joan that she can’t continue as she has been. And when Close invites us to witness this, that realisation is all the more powerful for the quiet way that she expresses it. It’s an emotional movie that hits hard on a number of occasions, but only in regard to Joan; Joseph isn’t as multi-faceted as he sounds, David is a drain on the narrative, and it’s unlikely that Bone would be tolerated so easily in real life. But the main reason for being here is Close, and though the movie loses traction when she’s not on screen, when she is, she – and the movie – are magnificent.
Rating: 7/10 – one of those occasions where a performance is so good that it offsets much that doesn’t work elsewhere, The Wife is certainly intriguing, but alas not as complex as it may seem; Close is superb, and the movie is mesmerising when she’s on screen, but though Runge tries hard to make the rest of the movie just as involving, it’s those devastating close ups of Joan as she copes with each new betrayal that have the most impact.