“The Wife,” based on a Meg Wolitzer novel and directed with almost claustrophobic intimacy by Swedish filmmaker Bjorn Runge, acts as an elegant frame for a showstopping performance by the great Glenn Close. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.
“Please don’t paint me as a victim,” Joan Castleman (Glenn Close), the wife of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), tells a journalist (Christian Slater) seeking to tell the truth about her marriage. “I am much more interesting than that.”
Indeed she is. “The Wife,” based on a Meg Wolitzer novel and directed with almost claustrophobic intimacy by Swedish filmmaker Bjorn Runge, acts as an elegant frame for a showstopping performance by the great Close. You watch it thinking of so many past roles: the firelit neediness in “Fatal Attraction,” the poised lioness of “Dangerous Liaisons,” the quietly brooding everywoman of “The Big Chill,” the uncanny stillness of “Albert Nobbs.” All of these whirl together in Joan; just try to take your eyes off her.
“The Wife” takes place in 1992 (with some flashbacks to the late 1950s, with Close’s character played by the actor’s talented look-alike daughter, Annie Starke). Joe, in its early scenes, is notified about the Nobel Prize; Joan, on the telephone extension, looks stunned, like a picture taken of joy rather than joy itself. They travel to Stockholm for the ceremony, but the fabric of their marriage is fraying.
Joan appears to be a traditional helpmeet — she reminds Joe to take his pills, carries his reading glasses, manages his schedule, smiles blandly at acolytes who ignore her — but there’s something slightly off in her expression; something both careful and angry. We learn that Joan once wanted to be a writer herself — she was, long ago, a promising student of Joe’s — but her dreams faded away, like that smile. Their son (Max Irons) is desperate for his father’s approval, not his mother’s; Joe’s both dependent on Joan and indifferent to her. So much of this is conveyed in tiny ways: through posture, through the way two people sit in a cab, through the way a gifted actor can make her eyes suddenly ice over.
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Though undeniably chilly, “The Wife” is enjoyable on many levels, not the least of which is the bird’s-eye-view of what it’s like to win a Nobel Prize. (Apparently you get called quite early in the morning, and have to go to a LOT of receptions.) But Close owns this movie, from beginning to end; it’s a performance of such intelligence and subtlety that only when the movie is long over do you start wondering about whether the plot holds up. I’m not sure that it does, but I don’t think it matters. Just look at Close, late in the film, as grief slowly pools in her face; it’s the best kind of movie magic.
★★★½ “The Wife,” with Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Christian Slater, Max Irons, Annie Starke. Directed by Bjorn Runge, from a screenplay by Jane Anderson, based on the novel by Meg Wolitzer. 100 minutes. Rated R for language and some sexual content. Opens Sept. 7 at SIFF Cinema Egyptian, Lincoln Square.