Like a bomb ticking away toward detonation, Glenn Close commands the center of The Wife: still, formidable and impossible to look away from.
Playing the devoted wife of a celebrated novelist (Jonathan Pryce), and the keeper of his deepest, darkest secret, the actress gives one of the richest, most riveting and complicated performances of her career. Close is so extraordinary — at once charming and inscrutable, alternately warm and withering, tender but full of contained fury — that she lifts an otherwise ordinary movie; thanks to her, the film’s slightly on-the-nose satire of the literary world and its somewhat familiar portrait of a problematic marriage take on a gnawing urgency.
An extraordinary performance lifts an ordinary movie.
Directed by Swedish filmmaker Bjorn Runge (Daybreak) and adapted by Jane Anderson from Meg Wolitzer’s novel, The Wife opens in 1992. Joe and Joan Castleman are in their Connecticut home, trying, and failing, to fall asleep. The reason for their restlessness: Joe has been tipped to win the Nobel Prize in literature, and they’re hoping for an early-morning call from the committee. As they toss and turn, teasing each other and fooling around, the film establishes the ticklish, exasperated intimacy of a happily long-married couple.
The phone rings: Joe has indeed won the Nobel. At a party to celebrate the news, Joe’s agent informs the Castlemans that a major magazine is “bumping a story about Bill Clinton” to make room for a piece on Joe. The mention of the Clinton name is hardly incidental. Razor-sharp, disciplined and stoic (she barely flinches at Joe’s affairs), Joan is above all the dutiful guardian of her husband’s “brand” — and distinctly reminiscent of a certain presidential candidate who struggled to free herself from the shackles of her husband’s stature (and ego).
One can imagine that had she never pursued her own political career, Hillary Clinton might have ended up like Joan Castleman. The filmmakers intersperse the action with flashbacks to 1958, showing us a 20-ish Joan (Annie Starke) at Smith, where she’s the star pupil in a creative writing class taught by dashing young professor and budding novelist Joe Castleman (Harry Lloyd). You know how this story goes: Dazzled by her talent and beauty, Joe seduces Joan; they have an affair, and he leaves his wife and baby to marry her. Joan abandons her ambitions when she realizes that writing, in the 1960s, is basically a male game — and when she senses the threat her own gift poses to the fragile self-esteem of the man she loves.
“My wife’s not a writer — if she were I’d have permanent writer’s block,” Joe tells a group of admirers after learning he’s won the Nobel, as Joan looks on. The comment stings, but Joan appears to have made her peace with the life she’s chosen. The popularity of Joe’s novels has afforded them material comforts. They have two grown children, Susannah (Alix Wilton Regan), who’s married and pregnant, and David (Max Irons), an aspiring writer himself. And while Joan isn’t the author she once wanted to be, she’s indispensable to her husband’s success — reminding him to take his pills and wear his glasses, of course, but also coaching him on his manners and counseling him on who, of the hopefuls and hangers-on orbiting them, is worthy of his trust.
In the not-to-be-trusted category is Nathaniel Bone (a fine Christian Slater), a smooth-talking journalist who approaches the Castlemans on the plane to Stockholm, where they’re headed to accept Joe’s prize. He’s doing research for a biography of Joe, a prospect that unsettles both Joe and Joan. And for good reason: Nathaniel’s discovery of a story Joan wrote in college, as well as Joan’s quietly mounting rage at the sexism inherent in the Nobel proceedings (while Joe is whisked off to schmooze with intellectuals, Joan is urged by the organizers to go shopping and get a spa treatment), will send the story spinning in a new direction.
Pryce fleshes out what’s essentially a caricature of the needy, narcissistic writer with consummate skill. But Close exerts such a magnetic pull that it’s hard to cast your eyes elsewhere. If her recessiveness in 2011’s Albert Nobbs felt overly calculated — a born scenery chewer showing off how much she could rein it in — her restraint in The Wife is exquisitely modulated; with just a flash in her eyes or the slightest flicker in her unyielding smile, Close lets us in on decades of wounded pride, and also a new, slowly dawning horror. It’s a silent scream of a performance, with none of the distracting grandness that a Meryl Streep or a Jessica Lange, for all their brilliance, might have brought to the role.
Anderson, who adapted Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge for HBO and Lisa Cholodenko in 2014, keeps her screenplay sharp and snappy. Unlike that triumphant work, which brimmed with the unresolved messiness of life, The Wife is tidy, its narrative, themes and implications diagrammed to a tee. Of course, Olive Kitteridge was a four-hour miniseries, while The Wife is a feature film with the constraints of a compact running time. But its limitations also stem from the filmmakers’ tendency to hit certain beats too hard, and too often. One example is David’s desperate quest for his father’s approval (and his bitterness at not getting it), an overplayed plot point that tugs the movie toward been-there-done-that domestic melodrama.
In its examination of the marriage between a flawed man and a selfless woman who stifles her own needs and complexities to hold him together, The Wife may remind some of Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years. That film, however, was distinguished by the director’s artful touch — his ability to tease out the dread and sorrow gradually contaminating a couple’s contentment.
Runge is a blunter, less sophisticated filmmaker. His direction is clean and careful, but unimaginative (his mostly still camera goes handheld-shaky during dramatic confrontations); what’s missing is the streak of mischief or danger that might have made for a bracing visual counterpoint to the tightly controlled central character.
Luckily, Close keeps you on your toes despite the film’s conventionality. At one point, Joan says that she doesn’t want to be seen as a victim, and the actress honors that wish: She makes the character profoundly sympathetic, but never saintly. When Joan finally lets it rip, voicing a lifetime’s worth of pent-up frustration, Close adds notes of guilt and conflictedness to her angry aria. She never shies away from the idea that, in a way, this is the story of a woman waking up to her own internalized misogyny — or, at the very least, to the way she has enabled and perpetuated her subjugation. Whether or not it’s too late for Joan Castleman is something the film wisely never reveals.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
Production companies: Tempo Productions Limited, Anonymous Content, Meta Film, Silver Reel, Spark Film & TV
Cast: Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Christian Slater, Max Irons, Harry Lloyd, Annie Starke, Alix Wilton Regan
Director: Bjorne Runge
Writer: Jane Anderson (adapted from Meg Wolitzer’s novel)
Producers: Claudia Bluemhuber, Meta Louise Foldager Sorensen, Rosalie Swedlin, Piers Tempest, Jo Bamford, Piodor Gustafsson
Production designer: Mark Leese
Director of photography: Ulf Brantas
Costume designer: Trisha Biggar
Music: Jocelyn Pook