Updated: Feb 7, 2020
Glenn Close is a very good actor. Over the last 36 years, in projects as varied as The Big Chill, Reversal of Fortune, 101 Dalmatians, Cookie’s Fortune and The Girl with All the Gifts, she expertly adapts her performance to the character as well as anyone else in the business. She has been nominated for six Oscars and I would not be surprised in the least if she gets a seventh nomination for her work in The Wife, a solid drama she carries with another brilliant turn.
Close is Joan Castleman, a once aspiring writer who gave up her dreams to support her husband Joe’s career as a novelist. As the movie opens, they receive a call telling them Joe has won the Nobel Prize in literature. While on their trip to Stockholm for him to be presented with his award, long buried tensions and simmering resentments begin to bubble to the surface.
The story is okay, if a tad cold. Though I suppose it is meant to be cold because the protagonist is holding so much emotion inside. The Wife (94 minutes without the end credits) is not always the most captivating film. It repeats some of its ideas multiple times and fails to fully explore all of its themes. The central drama did intrigue me. Anything not directly related to that tends to drag.
It has been adapted from the 2003 novel by Meg Wolitzer which, judging from the reviews I have read of it, delves more into Joe and Joan’s history together to give a clearer picture of what their marriage has been like and what role Joan played in his success. The movie uses several flashbacks to fill in important moments such as how they met, why she stopped writing and how Joe got started on his first book.
The flashback scenes, while helpful for backstory, never feel totally necessary. A lot of that information can be discerned elsewhere. And the subplots about Joe’s affairs and their son David’s desperate need for approval from his father are not developed enough to make them entirely useful. There are actually a few things introduced and not really dealt with. For example, the casual references to Joe being Jewish. What that means to the character is never addressed by the screenplay, making me wonder why they chose to mention it at all.
Those negatives are offset by Glenn Close. Everything involving her is worthwhile. Joan is so intentionally closed off, whether she is with other people or by herself, that it is truly powerful when she finally lets her emotions out. There is one scene in particular, where she is listening to a speech, which is especially moving. The words being said mean little to the other listeners but, by that point, we in the audience understand what they mean to Joan. Close, in a close-up, reacts subtly, while still making it clear how she is feeling. That begins the section of The Wife that defines it. It is something I will have difficulty forgetting due to the skill shown by Close.
The Wife is almost exclusively about Joan and when it sticks to her it is quite riveting. Despite a more than capable performance from Jonathan Pryce as Joe, I could not take my eyes off of Glenn Close. The project succeeds as well as it does because of the restrained passion she brings to her role. The character study aspect works even if the story itself sometimes lacks power and drama. It is a decent movie made occasionally very good thanks to one great performance.
3½ out of 5
Glenn Close as Joan Castleman
Jonathan Pryce as Joe Castleman
Annie Starke as Young Joan Castleman
Harry Lloyd as Young Joe Castleman
Christian Slater as Nathaniel Bone
Max Irons as David Castleman
Directed by Björn Runge
Screenplay by Jane Anderson