The Wife

(2018) *** R
100 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Bjorn Runge. Cast: Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Christian Slater, Max Irons, Harry Lloyd, Annie Starke.

/content/films/5124/1.jpgMeg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel The Wife—now a cinematic showcase for the talents of Glenn Close—turns that old chestnut “Behind every great man is a great woman” into a feminist fable of keeping up appearances to the point of exhaustion. The “great man” in question: celebrated novelist Joseph Castleman, who has just won his greatest accolade, a Nobel Prize in Literature. As is her wont, Joan Castleman dutifully suffers her insufferable husband, accompanying him to witness his triumph. Behind every closed door, though, Joan resembles a remark from the comedy film Bruce Almighty: “Behind every great man, there’s a woman rolling her eyes.”

Close’s Joan has become accustomed to the shamelessness of her husband (Jonathan Pryce), which reaches all the way back to their coupling in the 1950s (the film’s present day is 1992). In flashbacks, we witness the married Professor Castleman’s wildly unethical seduction of his student Joan (Harry Lloyd and Annie Starke, respectively), the young woman perhaps drawn more to the literary life than an obviously insecure man. Four decades later, Joan has settled into the role of enabler, caretaker and curator and mother-wife to a ceaselessly selfish man child, the veritable poster boy for believing one’s own press. He literally couldn’t have done it without Joan, but she very consciously wears a smile (albeit a detached one) and puts forward a kind of regal elegance as a best-defense offense to anyone suspecting she’s less than one-hundred percent on board.

One man proves decidedly suspicious: canny would-be Castleman biographer Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater) suspects there’s much more than meets the eye when it comes to the Castleman’s marriage, their lifelong arrangement. Over drinks, Bone flatters Joan, gently flirts, and attempts to wrest a confession of discontent and more. The dramatic tension in Swedish filmmaker Björn Runge’s treatment of Jane Anderson’s adapted screenplay rests partly in Bone’s persistence but more so in observing Joseph pushing his luck (in part with his serial philandering) as we witness deepening cracks in Joan’s façade.

Close plays each nuance like an orchestral virtuoso, and it’s only a matter of time before Joan cracks open, simmering resentments giving way to a hotel-suite yelling match. Pryce predictably nails this variation on an archetype he’s played before (in 2014’s Listen Up Philip). More surprising is Slater’s sly work, which demonstrates he’s more than capable of going toe-to-toe with Close; their scenes crackle with high-stakes brinkmanship and sexual chemistry. Max Irons tries and fails to make the Castleman’s deeply unhappy son David—an aspiring novelist hungry for his father’s approval—more than a device to amplify Joseph’s aloof nastiness and put Joan’s issues into greater relief.

Arguably, The Wife’s transition from page to screen suffers from the loss of Joan’s internal monologue, but Close takes it as a challenge accepted. The ultimate secret of the Castlemans’ marriage isn’t entirely convincing in Joan’s every rationale, but Close’s sheer force of acting makes it possible to believe in the character, at minimum in the emotional broad strokes. If Wolitzer’s acid wit takes a back seat to tightening tension and inevitable theatrical fireworks, perhaps satire wouldn’t fly as high in this #MeToo moment, and history tells us Close’s chances at Oscar gold improve with every ounce of drama.

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