At the start of The Wife, Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) learns that he is to be awarded a Nobel Prize for his contributions to literature. Joseph’s wife Joan (Glenn Close) is somewhat reserved when it comes to her husband’s award, her happiness marred by an uneasy tension which simmers beneath the surface. At the same time, their writer son David (Max Irons) resents his father’s success, while simultaneously craving his approval.
The premises behind director Björn Runge’s adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel are simple and archetypal. A woman realises that she desires a different life to that in which she finds herself, in a manner reminiscent of Madame Bovary or Constance Chatterley. A son seeks the approbation of his father, and a man believes emphatically (and narcissistically) in his own importance and the inevitable success of his career. Paired with a classic ‘Nordic Noir’ setting, and all the conditions for a Strindberg family drama are met. While there is no overt conflict, the veneer of love and respect is thin, and the dark tempest which thrashes behind the eyes of our protagonist is captivating.
There is no doubt that Joan loves her husband, but it is also evident that their love for each other has changed over the years. She nevertheless decides to maintain her husband’s reputation by keeping a lie alive. She is determined not to be a victim and does not want to be portrayed as such. The choice to marry was hers, and she takes responsibility for it, despite her waning affections. The Wife is thus a stylish depiction of the dilemma many older women face after the ups and downs of a lifelong marriage. It may also be a metaphor for the current drama taking place within the Swedish Academy (the institution which decides the Nobel prizewinner for literature), where internal tensions are hidden behind closed doors to safeguard its reputation.
To suggest that Close elevates this film would be an understatement. Before the plot takes hold, and before she utters a single word, she gracefully and sincerely conveys the inner conflict with which she is wrestling. When it bubbles to the surface, she communicates with impressive subtlety the disjunction between her own wishes and the love she has for her celebrated spouse. This nevertheless means that the father-son relationship between Pryce and Irons is overshadowed by the repressed dissension between husband and wife. Irons’s performance is also held back by Jane Anderson’s screenplay, which provides a sideline conflict that adds little to the story, and may indeed distract from the central feud.
The Wife may repeat the age-old story of a supercilious husband ignorant of his wife’s resentment, but it is worth seeking out for Close’s acting alone. This is one of the best performances of her career, and award nominations should certainly be forthcoming.