The Wife is a decent movie with very good performances -- and a bit of a trap it set for itself, telling the story of "great writers" without featuring any particularly great writing itself. The screenplay, by Jane Anderson based on the novel by Meg Wolitzer, is hardly bad. But neither is it winning any awards.
Having seen this film, I feel a little bad for Glenn Close, who is far and away the best thing in it. If you see this for any reason, it will be her. I wonder how much hope she's allowing herself amidst mounting Oscar talk for this role? Surely even the most restrained of legendary actors let their egos get the better of them. Why wouldn't they? In this instance, though, it's a little unfair. The rest of the Best Actress race would have to be dismal indeed for her to have any chance of winning an Academy Award for this movie, which means I would lay down money right now to bet Glenn Close is not getting that Oscar. Not this year. A nomination, maybe.
Her 2012 role in Albert Nobbs comes to mind: a great performance in a movie that is otherwise . . . fine. That role had Oscar talk swirling around it as well, and The Wife is set for a similar trek through awards season. The two movies even have similar points of view, looking back at the consequences of how gender was defined in the past.
The Wife is decidedly more modern a story: Joan Castleman (Close) indeed gets a great line when asked what her profession is -- by Swedish royalty, no less -- and she replies, "I am a kingmaker." Director Björn Runge takes an unusually critical look at the idea behind the old saying "behind every great man there is a great woman," as Joan spends her entire adult life supporting the masterful literary career of her husband, Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce). With the exception of a few flashbacks, the majority of the story takes place in Stockholm, where Joe is joined by his wife and their son David (Max Irons) for the ceremony in which he receives the Nobel Prize in Literature.
There's a moment in one of those flashbacks, something one might be justified in identifying as a fatal flaw in this film. Young Joan has just started being honest in her harsh critique of the first draft of Joe's first novel, and she actually says, "The dialogue is a little stilted." There follows a scene of histrionics during which young Joe actually bellows, "Life is so fucking unfair!"
It would be nice if, in a story about someone capable of beautiful writing, we could actually experience some beautiful writing. The only thing here that I would call "beautiful" is the refined nuance of Glenn Close's performance, which includes several extended shots of increasing yet always subtle anguish on her face. But the word would never be used for the writing, satisfyingly unexpected turns of the plot notwithstanding. If nothing else, the story being told turns out not to be quite what it seems at the start, and it is indeed more compelling than this movie's marketing would suggest.
And, again: Glenn Close elevates The Wife a great deal. As does Jonathan Pryce as the often obliviously pompous literary star with a wandering eye. There's something pretty pathetic about an old man transparently enamored with a woman perhaps a third his age, and he plays it well. When it comes to the rest of the supporting cast, however, it kind of feels like a bit more rehearsal may have been helpful. Christian Slater as the would-be biographer eager to get the scoop on what seems suspicious about Joan and Joe's relationship is maybe an exception, but he isn't given much to do besides serve as exposition or plot device.
It would be fair to say that The Wife fills the role of "counter programming" at the late-summer movie theatre sufficiently well. God knows, you could do worse for an evening out at the movies, and it's a decent choice for more mature audiences (both emotionally and literally). It's just not the great movie that Glenn Close still deserves to shine in. All credit to her for shining in whatever movie she's in regardless.