“Wife” feels like too small a word for what Joan Castleman (Glenn Close) is to her novelist husband, Joe (Jonathan Pryce). In his day-to-day, she’s so much more: diplomat, consigliere, nursemaid, North Star. But is there something else missing from her spousal résumé, a contribution she’s spent half a lifetime uncredited for?
Director Björn Runge takes his Scandinavian time unpacking the answer to that question in this tense, finely wrought chamber piece, a marital drama whose strained containment feels like a glass that has to crack. (And it will.)
As The Wife opens in wintry 1992 Connecticut, Joe is about to find out whether he’s reached the pinnacle of his already vaunted career: a Nobel Prize for Literature. Waiting for the predawn phone call, he’s a mess; anxious, scattered, ricocheting between self-soothing snacks and pleas for quickie sex. Joan is calmer, though her eyes go wide when the news finally comes. Still, she hardly lingers in the moment, because that’s her cue to go to work — navigating the celebratory calls and cocktail parties, making preparations for the upcoming ceremony in Stockholm.
It’s also the script’s cue to flash back to Smith College circa 1958, where young Joan (Close’s real-life daughter, Annie Starke) is a demure WASP lit major with a real brain beneath her blond curls and twinsets, and Joe (Harry Lloyd) is her professor, a Jewish boy from the city who cracks walnut shells from his pocket and makes all the coeds swoon with his James Joyce quotes. She has a crush from the start; he’s married, but not happily. They both burn to write great fiction, though neither is successful yet. (Elizabeth McGovern has a sharp little cameo too, as a boozy alumnus keen to warn Joan what lies in store for lady novelists who dare to dream.)
Fans of the best-selling 2003 Meg Wolitzer novel the movie is based on might remember a slower unfurling of the secret at the center of the story; Emmy-winning screenwriter Jane Anderson (Olive Kitteridge) leans on it much earlier, and heavier. She also turns the couple’s three children into two — including Max Irons as the son yearning for his father’s approval — but keeps Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater) as Joe’s aspiring biographer, a sort of ingratiating human mosquito who refuses to take no for an answer.
Welsh actor Pryce (Game of Thrones) is fantastic — a fussy, adulterous egoist in the Great Man mold of Norman Mailer or Philip Roth, with his own touchingly real frailties. But the movie belongs to Close, whose face, as she is courted and patronized, sexually betrayed and damned with faint praise, is a marvel of emotional intelligence and control; in the thrilling release of the revelatory final scenes, she’s a hurricane. “Don’t paint me as a victim,” she tells Bone at one point. “I am much more interesting than that.” And it’s true, even if the film — like her husband, and the world at large — can never quite catch up. B+