If Glenn Close’s steel-eyed, pitch-perfect performance could alone carry a film, then The Wife would be one of the season’s best. After its first festival screening, back in January, critics were quick to claim this as the role that would finally get Close her highly deserved Oscar after six nominations and subsequent snubs across three decades. And it’s true: Close’s aggressively minimalistic portrayal of Joan Castleman, a self-effacing wife who has lived almost a half-century in the shadow of her husband’s (Jonathan Pryce) literary genius, is revelatory, if not her career best.
Unfortunately, her performance is dulled by all the other entrapments that make Björn Runge’s adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel a slow and predictable bore. We open at the home of Joe and Joan Castleman (beware the blaring symbolism) on the eve of the hopeful phone call that will announce Joe as a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. When the call finally comes in, Joe asks the man on the other line to wait until his wife “can get on the extension.” As the camera follows Joan, we listen to the news being delivered and slow-zoom into an extreme close-up of Joan’s stone-still face. This is a woman who is clearly repressing something big, the camera’s long linger forces us to think. The rest of the film meanders through the couple’s next few days as they head to Stockholm to collect his award and parade for the press.
Don’t expect any interesting staging or camera angles as we follow the couple along through dress rehearsals and meet-n-greets and hover a little too long on Joan’s micro-reactions to the whole affair.
Although Wolitzer’s book suffered the same connect-the-dots plot, it carried itself with Joan’s enigmatic read-between-the-lines first person narrative. In the film, Jane Anderson’s (Olive Kitteridge) screenplay chooses to reduce Joan’s complex interiority to a woman of silence. The film, instead, draws its tension from evenly placed flashbacks to the 1950s, when young Joan (Annie Starke, Close’s real-life daughter) was a budding writer in young Joe’s (Harry Lloyd) creative writing class. It is in these flashbacks alone that we learn the true level of Joan’s involvement with Joe’s literary prowess.
Although the film’s stilted dialogue leaves most of the secondary characters feeling two dimensional, Close manages (despite—or maybe because of—a mostly silent performance) to capture Joan’s growing inner turmoil with razor precision. In one of the more enjoyable scenes Joe’s potential biographer, Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), lures Joan to a bar in an attempt to persuade her of her own unhappiness and in the hopes of using that unhappiness as a key for Joe’s demise. She playfully opens up just enough to entertain him, then quickly steals herself back in a way that makes you want to forgive the other 98 minutes of the film.
In the context of present politics, Joan’s confrontational climatic moment can be seen as a loud act of deliverance for the subservient solitude and sacrifice many women like Joan make for their relationships. It’s a predictable, albeit satisfying, ending. But more interesting, if anything, is the brief scene that follows, where Joan turns her notebook to a freshly white page and maybe, at least for a moment, hesitates before picking up her pen.