Review: Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce delve into the dark bargains of marriage in ‘The Wife’
Made by adults for adults, “The Wife” is an intimate drama that offers an inside look at a marriage and the dark bargains couples sometimes have to make with each other.
Expertly pared down by screenwriter Jane Anderson from Meg Wolitzer’s celebrated novel — and sensitively directed by Swedish filmmaker Björn Runge — “The Wife” features Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce, two fine actors who can convey a lot without doing too much.
This strong acting, especially by Close, helps the film overcome an uncertain premise and create characters that hold our attention absolutely.
“The Wife” is a revealing look into the 40-year relationship of Joan and Joe Castleman, played by Close and Pryce. When Joe wins the Nobel Prize for literature, the award exacerbates strains in the marriage and exposes arrangements that may have outlived their usefulness.
But, as its title indicates, “The Wife” is not a portrait of a marriage so much as a compassionate portrait of a mid-20th century creative woman and the compromises she felt she had to make to survive.
The film’s success is impressive because of two obstacles it had to overcome, starting with the absence of the witty, acerbic language Wolitzer created for Joan as the novel’s narrator.
Also, because the book is something of an extended metaphor about the societal position of women, putting its story squarely in the real world — by having Joe win the Nobel instead of the novel’s fictitious “Helsinki Prize” — makes the movie’s underlining plot point more of a stretch than it otherwise would be.
But when Close and her costars command the screen, we can forgive problems and simply enjoy the proceedings.
It’s very late at night in 1992 when we meet the Castleman couple in their Connecticut bedroom. Joan is trying to sleep but Joe is nervously awaiting an anticipated phone call.
“If it doesn’t happen,” he says crankily before he attempts to badger his wife into unwanted sex, “I don’t want to be around for the sympathy calls.”
The announcement, which of course does arrive, is from the Nobel Foundation, and Joe is congratulated for “writing with intimacy and depth, and changing the form.” Joan, in a division of labor and praise that is one of the film’s themes, is merely asked to monitor Joe’s calls. In effect, she is asked to be a “good wife.”
In the time leading up to their trip to Stockholm, Joe, convincingly played by Pryce, is revealed to be an arrogant and self-centered individual with blowhard tendencies. He may be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, but he is also something of a big baby.
As masterfully played by Close, Joan is something else again. An enigmatic woman of great personal dignity who keeps her own counsel, Joan always says and does just the right thing.
But despite her husband’s seeming affection for her, there is an almost indefinable air about Joan in the face of this great news, the troubling sense that all is not right.
Unhappy in a more pronounced way is the couple’s son David (played by Max Irons, son of actor Jeremy Irons), an aspiring but antagonistic writer who yearns for good words from this father that never seem to be forthcoming.
On the Concorde flight to Stockholm, things heat up when Joe’s would-be biographer, Nathaniel Bone (played by an engaging Christian Slater), makes his presence known. Joe wants to blow him off, but Joan, always the diplomat, reminds Joe that “there is nothing more dangerous than a writer whose feelings are hurt.”
In Stockholm, Joe’s womanizing tendencies become apparent, as does Joan’s insistence that she does not want to be thanked for being the classic help meet. In fact, she would rather not be thanked at all.
What Joan’s bleak mood stems from — what precisely is bothering her — is revealed in a series of flashbacks that alternate with scenes leading up to the Nobel ceremony.
These sequences — in which a young Joan is well-played by Annie Starke (Close’s actual daughter) and a young Joe by Harry Lloyd — show Joan as a promising writing student at Smith College and Joe as her unhappily married professor.
We also see Joan’s meeting with disenchanted novelist Elaine Mozell (an effective Elizabeth McGovern cameo) and how that conversation played out.
Many of these situations come to a head in Stockholm, and the adult Joan and Joe go at each other hammer and tongs in scenes of satisfying intensity that have been years in the making.
The plot reveals may not always be convincing, but the emotions certainly are.
Rating: R, for language and some sexual content
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: Opens Aug. 17, Landmark, West Los Angeles; Arclight Hollywood
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