Glenn Close gives Oscar-worthy performance in well-wrought 'The Wife'

  • Joan Castleman (Glenn Close) grapples with the realities of her marriage to a famous novelist in "The Wife."

    Joan Castleman (Glenn Close) grapples with the realities of her marriage to a famous novelist in "The Wife." Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

 
 

"The Wife" - ★ ★ ★

I am grateful to have seen Bjorn Runge's "The Wife" through the eyes of a longtime marriage veteran (43 years) rather than through those of a curious, 20-something newlywed.

Then, I likely would have failed to comprehend the level of this movie's astute authenticity in its sublimely wrought, complex and contradictory nuances that accompany long-term marriages in the real world.

"The Wife" might sound like the dullest and least commercially appealing title of 2018.

This actually makes a perfect title: simple, direct and accurate, for it tells the story of 60-something Joan Castleman, a quiet and unassuming wife living in the shadow of a brilliant, egocentric novelist about to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature.

We've all seen movies with similar plots, about underappreciated women sacrificing parts of their lives to fit into those of their seemingly more important spouses.

But this drama, adapted by Jane Anderson from Meg Wolitzer's novel, features a subtle, searing performance by Glenn Close, who instantly jumps to the top of the list of potential nominees for the Best Actress Academy Award.

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As Joan, Close creates an astonishingly readable character, an elegant woman of manners who keeps her famous novelist husband Joe (a spot-on Jonathan Pryce) on schedule, remembers his medications and stays out of the limelight.

They seem to be a perfect match even after almost 40 years of marriage. So why the slight suggestion of discontentment flickering in her eyes and lurking behind her measured, supportive words?

In 1993, giddy Joe and Joan prepare to travel to Stockholm where he will receive the coveted Prize. With them goes their brooding, aloof adult son David (Max Irons), an aspiring writer in his own right, anxiously seeking approval from his famous father, who awkwardly avoids providing it.

Once in Stockholm, the couple falls into a familiar routine: He puts on shows of witty bombast for his hosts while she plays the adoring spouse.

Joan (Glenn Close) looks after her novelist husband (Jonathan Pryce) in "The Wife."
Joan (Glenn Close) looks after her novelist husband (Jonathan Pryce) in "The Wife." - Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"The Wife" periodically whisks us back to the 1950s when waspy Joan (Annie Starke), a gifted literary student at Smith University, falls in love with her very married, Jewish creative writing professor Joe (Harry Lloyd), then the father of a little boy.

When the marriage crashes as we know it will, Joan and Joe tie the knot and become the couple they will remain for the next three decades.

The revelatory flashbacks -- not nearly as sharp as the 1993 segments -- continue, feeding us information that helps us to understand the intricacies of their relationship, some of which seem obvious (Joe has no ethical qualms about bedding one of his students, after all), but others more discreet and potentially destructive.

The highlight of "The Wife" has Close's Joan squaring off with Nathaniel Bone (a perfectly slithery Christian Slater), a slick and obsequious journalist trying to write a tell-all book about her Nobel Prize-winning husband.

The scene exquisitely demonstrates the seductive weapons employed by smart and ruthless journalists to gain access to information about their subjects.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But Joan proves herself to be equally smart and ruthless, and their verbal chess moves serve as a priceless example of high-pressure persuasion performed by a powerful pro.

Runge directs "The Wife" with a straightforward, unadorned style, as if he knew Close's extraordinary performance would single-handedly lift this movie to a higher level.

And it does.

• • •

Starring: Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Christian Slater, Max Irons

Directed by: Bjorn Runge

Other: A Sony Pictures Classics release. In limited release. Rated R for language, sexual situations. 100 minutes

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