The Wife review: a mesmerising Glenn Close finally emerges from the sidelines
Dir: Björn Runge. Cast: Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Christian Slater, Max Irons, Alix Wilton Regan, Elizabeth McGovern. 15 cert, 100 mins
Glenn Close is the living actor who has most often been beaten to an Oscar: six times since 1982, the words “but no cigar” have been ringing in her ears. With The Wife, she has her best shot since Dangerous Liaisons of laying this curse to rest. The tantalising irony of the film is that it’s about an awards presentation – the Nobel Prize for literature, no less – and that her character is not the one receiving it. She’s the one sitting, in a manner Close presumably knows all too well, neglected on the sidelines.
She is Joan Castleman, destined forever to remain a mere adjunct to Joe (Jonathan Pryce), one of those Great American Novelists in the Roth/Updike mould. (Pryce played another of these, one Ike Zimmerman, in the rather more caustic Listen Up Philip.) The pair have been married for most of a lifetime, ever since Joan’s college days, when Joe, her energetic professor, squirmed out of a loveless first marriage to pursue her.
Their life together has involved a kind of crooked deal, where he gets all the credit for literary brilliance, and she uncomplainingly tags along, turning a blind eye to his frequent affairs and wondering what exactly is in it for her.
Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel was narrated by Joan, and on its very first page, as Joe chatted up an air stewardess on their flight, she began savagely outlining to the reader all the reasons why she planned to leave him. The film, adroitly adapted by Jane Anderson and directed by Swedish veteran Björn Runge, eases itself into her predicament more stealthily, laying down the basis for all her buried grievances. It lets Close come in wearing a kind of kabuki mask, a civilised if lightly sardonic front concealing who knows what dissatisfaction and anger beneath.
The glittering, frozen quality of her performance is as mesmeric as it is mysterious. The camera lingers on her often as she’s absorbing various slights: when Joe introduces her to peers at a pre-prizegiving social event, announcing “my wife doesn’t write”, her expression barely flickers, but the thermometer somehow drops a thousand degrees. When she watches him flirt with a photographer, you imagine ninja stars flying out of her eyes.
Veiled hints about the true nature of their marriage are gradually dropped by the script. A hack biographer played by Christian Slater, thwarted in his attempts to gain authorised access, pesters Joan into a private drink, hoping to prise those secrets out of her.
But her ability to remain a smiling clam, who can toy with juicy revelations and even flirt with Slater without giving anything concrete away, should never be underestimated.
The Castlemans have a daughter, who has not followed them to Stockholm, and a son (Max Irons) who has, a would-be writer bitterly struggling to escape his father’s shadow. In the book he was a disturbed, occasionally violent computer nerd – a recluse – which felt like a less clichéd conception, but it has presumably been decided that the film needs someone on screen, besides Slater, who notices what doesn’t quite add up about Joe’s literary credentials: his ability, say, to forget the name of a major character from one of his novels.
Pryce’s bluff, garrulous performance suggests a born bullshitter, as well as an overgrown toddler whose ego needs constant spoon-feeding, whether from Joan, Nobel Prize committees, or the young women he has managed to ensnare with his spuriously earned fame. The role fits him like an expensive silk glove he keeps childishly admiring.
Still, the real point of The Wife is the interior journey it offers to Close, like a red carpet smoothly unfurling towards the kind of Oscar-clip-showcase scenes that genuinely warrant the airplay. She gets an explosion in a limousine that feels like 40 years of neglect and disappointment fizzing free from a test tube.
But still that glacial repose is hers to resume, if Joan feels like it, choosing to become the sole custodian of her own private legacy. Close could feasibly miss the Oscar, but watching her lose again – for this, of all roles – will be a thespian psychodrama for the ages.