They say behind every great man there’s a great woman. In director Björn Runge’s The Wife, that statement couldn’t be more true.
Adapted from Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel, the film tells the story of Joan Castleman (Glenn Close), wife of renowned author Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce). One day in late 1992, they’re awoken by a phone call from Sweden. The man on the other end of the line informs them that Joe will be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The two are so elated they get on the bed and literally jump for joy, with a grizzled Joe shouting, “I won the Nobel!” like a giddy child.
It causes Joan to pause, but it’s unclear why. Soon, as guests swarm their house to congratulate the author, it becomes obvious that Mrs. Castleman is carrying some longstanding burden that is just now surfacing. Things get worse as the couple fly to Stockholm with their son, David (Max Irons), and as a hopeful biographer (Christian Slater) begins to pry at the past.
The Wife takes a clever approach at peeling away the layers of its story. The first act is fairly measured, bordering on slow-going, as the movie delves into what feels like a fairly generic tale of a famous author and his infidelities. But not long after, we grasp that there’s a whole lot more going on here. As the movie jumps back and forth between the present and Joe and Joan’s earlier life together, The Wife’s underlying conflict becomes leagues more complicated. Its opening scenes suddenly possess a gravity that snuck by us on first blush.
While the ingenuity owes to a few different parties—Runge’s tactful direction, Jane Anderson’s savvy script, and of course Wolitzer’s story—Close’s performance here definitely makes the movie what it is. In a lot of ways, the success of The Wife’s reveal is predicated on the subtlety with which Close plays out those first few moments. The momentum she carries from there—whether it’s playing the patient matriarch or secretly simmering with anger toward her husband—sustains the picture. Her ability to offer clue after clue without really letting anything slip is an impressive display of calculated acting.
It’s only after the Nobel ceremony late in the movie, when Close speaks her climactic line, that we get a real confirmation of floating suspicions. And even this delivery, as powerful as it is and heavy with dramatic irony, is downplayed with expert skill.
The Wife is about many things: writing, love, betrayal, misogyny, fame—but ultimately it’s about one woman playing the hand life has dealt her, and carrying the weight that comes with that decision. Joan isn’t completely innocent, and there aren’t really any winners here.
While that might make for a depressing life, the film’s complexities, combined with Close’s acting prowess fleshing them out, provides a phenomenal character study. After six Oscar losses for Close—tied for the most by any actress—it’s a good bet she’ll finally take home gold.