THE WIFE, drama, rated R, Violet Crown,
The family dynamic is evident from the start. Joe Castleman ( Jonathan Pryce), an aging world-famous novelist, is boyish, vain, and impulsive. Joan (Glenn Close), his wife of 40 years, is mature, self-effacing, longsuffering, and wise. Throw in their son David (Max Irons, who knows something about being the son of famous father Jeremy Irons), an aspiring writer who craves his father’s approval and finds it wanting, and their daughter Susannah (Alix Wilton Regan), who is preparing to deliver the couple’s first grandchild. Add a Nobel Prize for Literature, and stir. Joe and Joan are giddy with jubilation, jumping up and down like children on their bed, after Joe learns that he has won the coveted prize. This reflects something of a family tradition — a flashback shows them doing the same when he sells his first novel as a young writer.
On the plane to Stockholm, Joe is approached by Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), a writer who’s been after Joe to cooperate on a biography. Joe brushes him off, but Nathaniel is nothing if not persistent, and as he makes inroads with Joan in Stockholm, he provides much of the trigger mechanism for the flashback sequences. Joe and Joan met at Smith College in the ’50s, when he was a married young writing instructor and she was his student, a promising writer (the young Joan is played appealingly by Close’s daughter Annie Stark, the young Joe by Harry Lloyd).
A lot of this melodrama, adapted by Jane Anderson from the novel by Meg Wolitzer and directed by Björn Runge, is both heavy-handed and puzzlingly unconvincing as regards its insights into a writer’s life. Its main thrust is the lack of respect and opportunity for a woman in the field, and Joan’s sublimation of her own talent to adopt the role of the Great Man’s Wife. In an early flashback scene, Elizabeth McGovern has a cameo as an embittered writer who counsels the young Joan to forget writing, stating, “Nobody’s going to read a woman anyway.”
But it is the performances of its three leads that lift this story from a self-pitying potboiler to a film to be reckoned with. Slater brings a selfaware nuance to the role of the would-be biographer that rescues it from oily villainy. And Pryce delivers a Joe Castleman who is self-centered and needy, and yet has enough rumpled charm to make the long-term marriage credible.
But this is Glenn Close’s picture. The repeated close-ups of her face reveal many-chaptered novels of hidden emotion playing out beneath a carefully composed surface as she endures her husband’s peccadilloes, slights, and fawning tributes. It’s a career performance, and one that’s already generating Oscar buzz for this six-time nominee who’s never landed the prize. The film may not be worthy of her, but she makes it worth our while. — Jonathan Richards