“The Wife” begins as a strategically restrained family drama, but it doesn’t take long to notice its boiling undercurrent of frustration, resentment and discontent. The further we get into the story of Joseph and Joan Castleman the more we feel the tug of inevitability. It’s like a powder keg with a lit fuse. We know it’s going to blow up. The question is when?
Swedish-born Bjorn Runge directs this Jane Anderson adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel. Their film opens in 1992 Connecticut where accomplished author Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) and his supportive yet melancholy wife Joan (Glenn Close) receive an early morning call informing them that he has worn the Nobel Prize in Literature. Joseph is understandably ecstatic over what would be any writer’s dream while Joan’s enthusiasm is a bit more tempered.
The couple travels to Stockholm, Sweden for several days of ceremonies leading up to the Nobel prize presentation. They bring along their son David (Max Irons), an aspiring writer who yearns for the approval of his father. The look we get into their relationship exposes the first of several cracks in the family’s facade. Joseph’s high honor ends up opening old wounds and creating a few new ones along the way.
The story takes its time unveiling itself, slowly feeding us small morsels of revelation. Some info comes through a handful of flashbacks that documents how younger Joseph (Harry Lloyd) and Joan (Close’s real life daughter Annie Starke) met while showing the genesis of their problems both as writers and as a couple. These moments are interesting enough but far weaker than when Close and Pryce are on screen and they tend to disrupt the film’s rhythm.
And that brings me to the film’s biggest strengths – its two central performances. Close has the trickiest role of the two and she often speaks volumes without uttering a word. Her empty smiles and burdened stares reveal someone worn down by tragically quenched ambition and partially self-inflicted disempowerment. Pryce is no stranger to playing a narcissistic writer (see 2014’s “Listen Up Philip”). His character requires a much different performance than we get from Close yet he is a perfect complement to her. The two 71-year-olds have a remarkable chemistry. And it’s worth mentioning that Christian Slater is surprisingly effective as a lurking biographer chomping at the bit to get rights to Joseph’s story.
The more Close’s once dutiful wife questions her own decisions and concessions the more tension builds between this husband and wife. From there “The Wife” simmers to the point of boiling over and the outpouring of emotions we get in the third act is all but unavoidable. At a dinner honoring the Nobel recipients Joan is asked what she does for a living. Her response and the manner in which she gives it offers the perfect encapsulation of her character – “I am a kingmaker”.
VERDICT – 4 STARS