They say that as you get older, you are supposed to slow down in life, but Glenn Close obviously didn’t get the memo. The legendary actress, now 71 years of age, has made credited appearances in ten films over the last four years, but arguably the last time she received real critical praise in a role was for her Oscar nominated performance in 2011’s Albert Nobbs. I think seven years out of the top tier limelight is more than enough for an actress of such stature, and judging by the early hype for her newest release, Close clearly thought so too.
Based on a 2003 novel by Meg Wolitzer, The Wife tells the story of long married couple Joan and Joseph Castleman (Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce) as they travel to Stockholm, where Joseph is set to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature at the end of a sparkling writing career. As her husband receives more and more plaudits over the course of the trip, the audience are treated to both flashbacks and contemporary conversations that begin to allude to a different of truth about Joan’s involvement in Joseph’s celebrated works, and the story builds to a revelatory and striking conclusion that feels just as thematically poignant outside of the narrative context as it is does within it.
There is no doubting that The Wife is a slow burn drama, operating on a fairly quiet and unassuming level until emotions spill over in the final third of the film, but the patient relationship building and place setting that the audience are asked to endure make the explosive ending confrontations even more bracing and jolting. At its heart, it is a story about the oppressive power of the patriarchy, in this instance in the world of literary publishing and also in marriage, but the messages and metaphors extend far beyond that. What the filmmakers have done so well is to achieve a sense of tension and walking on egg shells that remains high throughout the entirety of the picture, with Joan having to navigate her way through life with a husband that she certainly loves, but who is an outright narcissist.
The events that unfold are not designed to be some sort of shock twist, I think anyone who has seen the trailer can guess the direction in which the story is going. In fact, it is the inevitability of the revealed secrets that makes for such tense and rich viewing. In a weird sort of way, the film reminds me of First Reformed, another recent release that focuses on a quiet, unassuming protagonist who over the course of the narrative slowly comes to a breaking point of self realisation that forces them to snap from their routine and take action. Of course, The Wife has a much more melodramatic feel to it, but there’s nothing wrong with that when it is done well, and for the most part, it’s done well here.
Like many of the films that usually garner Best Actress nominations, The Wife is solid as a whole, but elevated by a striking central performance from Glenn Close. I mean it when I say that you can’t take your eyes off of her for a single second. There is more going in behind Joan’s eye in any given frame than in the entire bodies of the characters that she shares the screen with, and intentionally so. For the sake of the complexity of her character, Close can’t afford to switch off for a single second, and she absolutely never does. As the stoicism of her outward exterior starts to crack, there is an almost Isabelle Huppert level of intensity that comes from within and it is pretty breathtaking to watch. I can’t imagine that Glenn Close won’t be nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars. Hell, she might even win the damn thing.
As husband Joseph Castleman, Jonathan Pryce gives a much more nuanced performance than an initial watch might suggest. He has to walk to a thin tightrope between being an outrageous, unyielding narcissist yet still showing enough glimpses of care and charisma that helps the audience to understand what made Joan fall in love with him in the first place. Together, the two seasoned performers share a crackling chemistry, but it’s no negative reflection on Pryce’s part to say that Close bested him effortlessly in every category.
Brief mention for the impressive array of supporting performances given by the likes of Christian Slater, Max Irons and Elizabeth McGovern. And in particular, Annie Starke and Harry Lloyd who bring some authentic feeling and layered history to the narrative as young Joan and Joseph in flashback form.
Overall, The Wife is a really solid drama that is made to feel that little more special thanks to staggering central performance by a back to top form Glenn Close. It is a film that goes a little way towards exploring the tragedy of generations of lost female voices in the arts, in science, in pretty much any area that has historically been dominated by men. A theme that for too many reasons to list on this little film blog, feels more timely than ever.