FILM REVIEW – THE WIFE. With Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Max Irons, Christian Slater, Elizabeth McGovern. Written by Jane Anderson. Directed by Björn Runge. Rated R for language and some sexual content. 100 minutes.
“I think his philandering is a cliché,” offers the unfortunately named Nathaniel Bone. A bookish biographer played by a miscast Christian Slater in reading glasses, Mr. Bone is sharing a drink and a secret cigarette with Glenn Close’s tight-lipped title character in THE WIFE.
It’s 1992 and the two are in Stockholm, where her husband Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) is about to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Basically just along for the ride, Close’s long-suffering Joan tends to her husband’s blood pressure medication and brushes crumbs out of his beard, silently seething for reasons only gradually revealed.
Adapted by screenwriter Jane Anderson from Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel, “The Wife” is a tangy little bit of literary score-settling, taking the piss out of mid-century macho myths of what a Great American Writer was supposed to be. Staged in a deceptively dry fashion by Swedish director Björn Runge, the movie lulls you into a false sense of decorous complacency before the claws come out. After hedging its way around a glaringly obvious plot twist for perhaps a bit too long, the melodramatic second hour is simply delicious.
Pryce plays Castleman as a happily married cousin to literary pugilists like Norman Mailer and Philip Roth. He’s a man of appetites with a quick temper and a buried Brooklyn honk that occasionally creeps back into his more profane outbursts. (Pryce is an old pro at this by now, having brilliantly skewered a passive-aggressive Roth stand-in a few years ago in Alex Ross Perry’s great “Listen Up Philip.”) With all his swaggering and screwing, Joe Castleman couldn’t be a more stereotypical tormented genius if he were an actor hired to play the part.
And that’s where “The Wife” gets really interesting, asking pointed questions about who we deem worthy of attention in the arts, and the preferential treatment afforded to those who fit our preconceived notions of creative “types.” Close occupies the center of the film in a marvel of minimalism. She’s been doing this for so long she knows exactly what to give and when to withhold, so that slightest ripple of an eyebrow sends shockwaves through the theatre. She’s also an actress who knows when to go big, and boy does she get some chances here.
The story occasionally ventures back to the 1950s, in which flashback sequences unfurl the background behind the Castlemans’ mysterious marriage. I wasn’t sold on Harry Lloyd as Joe, as he’s way too British to pass for a Brooklynite. (If this kid wasn’t in “Dunkirk” then he should’ve been.) But Close’s real-life daughter Annie Starke gives a remarkable performance as the young Joan, matching her mom’s reserve while infusing the character’s reticence with an at times startling erotic charge.
There’s a darkly comic element to the film’s continual diminishment of Castleman’s legend on the stage of his highest honor. A splendid scene finds Pryce hitting on a young female photographer (Karin Franz Korlof) hired by his publishing house. There is the Great Man, eating dinner alone in an opulent ballroom, trotting out creaky old seduction tactics that barely worked on co-eds forty years ago, reciting the closing paragraph of James Joyce’s “The Dead” to someone who has no idea what he’s talking about.
His wife watches this all through a distant doorway and we at last see Castleman through Joan’s eyes, in a wide shot that makes this literary giant and his larger-than-life personality look so very, pitiably small.•••
Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.