2018-09-06 / Around Town

Glenn Close Makes ‘The Wife’ Worthwhile

FILM REVIEW
By Loren King


Glenn Close, opposite Jonathan Pryce, may earn her first Oscar for “The Wife,” coming to the Jane Pickens Theater. Glenn Close, opposite Jonathan Pryce, may earn her first Oscar for “The Wife,” coming to the Jane Pickens Theater. One of the reasons Glenn Close is considered a frontrunner for this year’s Best Actress Oscar for “The Wife” is that the film, though entertaining and immensely watchable, isn’t nearly as complex as her indelible performance. That she brings such emotional and psychological depth to her character, despite the movie’s shortcomings, makes her performance even more remarkable.

Based on the novel by Meg Wolitzer, adapted for the screen by Jane Anderson and directed by Swedish filmmaker Björn Runge, “The Wife” opens with a scene we hardly ever see on-screen, showing a middle-aged couple getting intimate in bed.

Joan (Close) is tolerating her husband Joe’s (Jonathan Pryce) sexual cajoling because she knows he’s nervously awaiting a late-night phone call to find out if he’s been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. When he gets the call, their reactions reveal much about their marriage. Joe, a prolific and acclaimed Phillip Roth-style author, pretends to be humbled while his ego soars. Joan immediately begins preparing for the media attention and their trip to Stockholm to attend the gala ceremony. The movie offers a subtle yet scorching portrait of a long, mostly loving marriage full of unspoken rhythms, with roles long settled into, the way affection gives way to annoyance and the small compromises that pile up over the years.


Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications. Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications. As the big event approaches, the movie flashes back to the couple’s meeting and courtship in 1958 when Joan (Annie Starke) is a student and aspiring writer at Smith College. Budding novelist Joe (Harry Lloyd) is her inspiring teacher. Though he’s married, they begin an affair, the first indication that Joe’s insecurities extend to marital infidelity. Although he praises Joan’s work, he bristles at her gentle criticism of his. Starke, as the young Joan, keeps these moments from sinking into cliché. That she happens to be Close’s real-life daughter gives the scenes even more authenticity, but more important is that Starke captures Joan’s younger self: disciplined, passionate and honest, but then suddenly full of doubt.

In a key scene, Elizabeth McGovern plays a talented but unpublished novelist who bitterly advises Joan not to pursue writing because all the editors and critics are men and her work will be ignored. Joan, malleable and unsure, ends up being the good wife in service to Joe, a less talented writer but one with enough charisma and opportunity to gain attention and respect.

These flashbacks give texture to what’s happening in the present. In Stockholm, Joe is lavished with praise while the ever-gracious Joan is left on the sidelines. “The Wife” may portray a literary couple, but it could be about any relationship between a powerful man and a woman who sacrifices her own ambitions to help him succeed.

Joan’s memory is jogged by Nathaniel (Christian Slater), a pushy writer researching the Castlemans for a potential biography, despite rebuffs from both Joe and Joan. Nathaniel follows them to Sweden, where he tries to charm Joan over cocktails to coax truths from her that she’s not about to spill. It’s a great scene, with Close, looking luminous at 71, revealing Joan’s flirtatious side that conceals a steely guardedness about herself and her marriage.

But it all starts to come apart leading up to the medal ceremony, as Joe revels in the attention while Joan stands by dutifully, ready to remind her husband to take his pills and wipe crumbs from his beard. In this public glare, she sees clearly the sacrifices she’s made and the just-below-the-surface truth about how much her husband owes his storied career to her.

There are weaknesses in the film that threaten to turn it into a Lifetime movie cliché: the would-be writer son (Max Irons) who resents his father; Castleman’s predictable flirtation with a photographer younger than his daughter. But when Close is on-screen, the movie is riveting. Like her Tony-winning role as silent film star Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard,” Close can convey a range of emotions with her expressive eyes alone. With one look, we know all we need to know.

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