When The Wife first appeared on the festival circuit last year, the call went up almost immediately: This, finally, might be the movie to win Glenn Close the Oscar that has eluded her over the course of six — count-’em — six nominations.
The movie is finally hitting theaters, and it turns out the hype is true: Close delivers a breathtaking performance in a film that is nominally an adaptation of a Meg Wolitzer novel but could just as easily have been reverse-engineered precisely to exploit Close’s singular expressive gifts. The Wife is a handsome production that delicately skewers literary-world pretensions and Great Man mythmaking. But primarily, The Wife offers viewers a chance to observe one of the finest — and most criminally underpraised — actors of her generation working at the very top of her shrewd, subtle, superbly self-controlled game.
As The Wife opens, Joan Castleman (Close) has just settled in for the night with her husband, Joe (Jonathan Pryce), a famous novelist. Around 5 the following morning, the phone rings, Joe picks up and his life is changed: He has just won the Nobel Prize in literature.
Director Bjorn Runge stages the moment perfectly, conveying simultaneously the Castlemans’ excitement and the fact that they were expecting it all along. Moments later, Joan and Joe are jumping on the bed like kids, singsonging, "I won the Nobel."
Or was that "we"? That’s the question that animates the rest of a film that takes place on the couple’s trip to Sweden, where Joan reflects on her life with Joe, the sublimating of her own literary ambitions to serve his, and an inescapable realization about their relationship that she has repressed but can stay hidden no longer. In one sequence alone — when Joe and Joan are being introduced to their local Stockholm handlers, for example — an entire unspoken code of power and pecking order is expressed simply by who’s standing where.
The mystery of Joe and Joan’s past drives the narrative tension of The Wife, and it’s given an added air of authenticity by Close’s real-life daughter, Annie Starke, playing her as a younger woman. Often those flashbacks are prompted by Nathaniel Bone, a pushy would-be biographer. Portrayed by Christian Slater with a tricky combination of self-interest and genuine concern, Nathaniel is a figure of puckish disruption.
As crafty as The Wife is as it wends its way through its own shifting dynamics, it is through Close’s performance that the story’s emotional arc is made manifest. Whether she’s fending off a nosy writer, politely brushing off a solicitous minder or placating her insecure son (Max Irons) in the film’s least convincing scenes, Joan is a paragon of self-possession and quiet but steely will.
That veneer will ultimately crack, but in Close’s finely calibrated portrayal, the fault lines are just barely visible. The film’s climactic scene features the actor sitting completely still, her face a mask of almost imperceptible anger that gives way to engulfing rage before our eyes, seemingly without Close doing a thing. This is screen acting at its finest. Close has been doing such good work for so long that it has been easy to take her for granted, before and after Fatal Attraction. With The Wife, she has been given the perfect platform to declare that, like her character in that film, and like Joan in this one, she will not be ignored.