On the surface so much of The Wife seems very familiar. An eccentric, creative genius, always a guy, whose unquestioned talent is celebrated the world over while personally he is something of a disaster with personal demons in spades. And nearby nurturing his extraordinary talent is the quiet, put-upon wife who has given up her own accomplishments to become a part of his.
Well, Glenn Close ain’t havin’ anymore of that shit in Swedish director Björn Runge’s quietly intense and timely drama, The Wife. A slow burn that morphs from a simple domestic drama into a powerful mystery, the film is carried by the capable shoulders of the extraordinary Close, who seems poised for a Best Actress nomination and possibly more. The film begins as Brooklyn writer Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) gets a phone call late at night. It’s the one he was hoping for. He’s just been informed that he has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He’s taken aback, or at least he acts surprised but you can tell this is what he was always expecting. And listening in on the other line is his loyal wife, Joan, and for her it’s a moment that makes the last 35 years all worth it.
Or were they? Joan ensures the polite Swedish voice on the line that she will “Take good care of him”, because that’s what she’s always done, at the expense of her own hopes and dreams. While happy, there’s resentment between Joan and Joe, which silently grows as they head to Stockholm for the award ceremony. Along for the event is their adult son, David (Max Irons), an aspiring writer both living in his father’s shadow and eager for his approval, which doesn’t come easily. But it quickly becomes clear that Joe is as self-involved as he is a too friendly with the lovely female photographer shadowing him during the trip.
Meanwhile, Joan endures one quiet indignity after the other with the practiced stoicism of someone who has been at it for far too long.”My wife doesn’t write”, Joe often says casually, even dismissively, while the next moment praising her to the Heavens in his speeches. She’s especially adamant that he not mention her in his acceptance speech this time, but why would that be the case? Runge and screenwriter Jane Anderson tease the answer wonderfully, so that I began to wonder if what I was suspecting was actually true. Only when slimy paparazzo Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater, perfectly oily) starts lodging accusations at Joan over drinks does the film start to show its cards. Flashbacks to Joe and Joan’s scandalous courtship inform the present, while showing us that she did indeed write once upon a time, and apparently wrote quite well. Some might say she was even better than her husband…
The scene at the bar when Nathaniel starts asking Joan why Joe’s writing improved so much after meeting her is a masterfully-played power struggle between two dynamic forces. Slater pokes, prods, and flatters with an Eddie Haskell-like charm; he’s as transparent as Close is a bottled up well of emotions. As it becomes clear her biggest secret is getting out in the open, decades of frustrations, pain, anger, and fear are shown in the lines of her face, the tiniest squint of her eyes. Close doesn’t need to have an enraged outburst to express the tornado storming around in Joan’s gut, and it wouldn’t be faithful to her character to be that way…at least not until the timing is just right. And when that moment does come, after we’ve been made to wait for it so long, it’s as cathartic for us as it is for her. Long after The Wife has built to a bittersweet yet satisfying finale, it’s Close’s subtle performance that will linger on the mind.