Glenn Close is a tremendous actress. That shouldn’t be news to anyone who’s been even halfway following her career, but if there were still any doubt, her performance in Björn Runge’s “The Wife” erases any remaining room for it. As the supportive yet secretive spouse of an acclaimed writer dealing with some old anxieties in the days before he accepts the Nobel Prize, the veteran actress is a marvel of twisty understatement here, delivering emotions that conceal as much as they reveal, and offering onion-like layers that invite repeat viewings in light of some of the film’s later revelations. The film itself – solid, conventional, and potentially quite attractive to older filmgoers – is very lucky to have her.
Close stars as sixty-something Joan Castleman in this adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s novel. Set in 1992, we first see Joan in bed with her novelist husband, Joe (Jonathan Pryce), who is scarfing down sweets to compensate for his nervousness on the night before the Nobel honorees are announced. The next morning, the news is exactly what they’d hoped for, and the following days are a blur of celebratory dinners and plans for their upcoming trip to Sweden. Their relationship is well-sketched from the start: Joe the somewhat absent-minded man-of-letters who is all too eager to bask in the glow of recognition, Joan the regally-composed wife who keeps the trains running on time, yet seems less than eager to play the silent smiling spouse as her husband makes toasts in her honor.
There are plenty of such toasts in store for her in Stockholm, and the couple take their adult son David (Max Irons) along for the trip. Sullen, surly, and perpetually staring down the collar of his leather jacket, David has designs on becoming a writer too – while Joan effuses praise for his latest story, Joe is too distracted to sit down with it. The family is trailed by an unwelcome guest in Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), a relentlessly insinuating journalist who is dead-set on composing Joe’s biography, whether he participates or not.
We begin to see why the Castlemans might not want a pushy interloper prying into their lives, as Joe takes a shine to the pretty young photographer (Karin Franz Korlof) assigned to shadow him in Sweden, and Joan gives the sort of frosty sigh that suggests she’s seen this scenario play out before. But there’s much more to their story, and flashbacks to the couple in the 1960s – back when he (Harry Lloyd) was a struggling, married creative writing professor, and she (Annie Starke) was his eager student – start to fill in those gaps.
Runge’s direction is unfussy, the score from Jocelyn Pook adds quite a bit, and the story, adapted by Jane Anderson, has some very valid points to make about literary sexism and the cult of artistic personality as it winds its way toward a central secret. But there’s a staid, sleepy air of familiarity to the whole affair, and the film’s big revelation may be believable on its own, yet it calls too much of what’s come before into question. Thanks to Close’s performance, we certainly care about Joan, but the flashback sequences scan as a tad phony in comparison, and the film as a whole proves too tastefully routine to properly raise the stakes.
“The Wife” is Close’s film from start to finish, and several of the supporting performances fail to rise to her level, with Pryce and Slater the only ones who manage to impress in her orbit. The former slowly erases the line between doddering lion in winter and pathetic old wretch as the story progresses, and the latter shares a charged, slyly flirtatious drink with Close that gives the film its brightest spark. As a casual conversation becomes an impromptu interview, Slater jabs and Close bobs and weaves, their tete-a-tete seeming evenly matched until Close begins to unveil, piece by piece, just how much intelligence and savvy her character has been holding in reserve the whole time. It’s a great scene, and the centerpiece of a great performance, but the film never reveals similar depth.