(2018—Director: Björn L. Runge)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
Potential spoilers below
While the cinematic medium honors its origins in photography twenty-four times per second, it also takes much inspiration from the stage with regards to storytelling and of course acting. Films that hold extra close to the medium’s theatrical roots, however, tend to bore viewers with flat visuals and flamboyant acting—necessary for the live stage, excessive on the screen. The best of these “filmed plays” offset their visual limitations with a gripping scenario and undeniable chemistry from among the actors. With established Swedish director Björn L. Runge making in his English-language debut and Jane Anderson adapting the 2003 novel by Meg Wolitzer, The Wife is one such example, boasting powerhouse performances that overshadow a few superfluous flashbacks.
One early morning in 1992, a phone call from the Swedish Academy in Stockholm reaches the Connecticut seaside home of Joan Castleman (Glenn Close) and her husband, acclaimed novelist Prof. Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce). The distinguished voice on the Swedish end informs the senior couple that Joe has won that year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. Joan and Joe fly at once to the Swedish capital, accompanied by David (Max Irons), their adult son and aspiring writer who resents the lack of approval from his father. The renewed press attention on Joe has also attracted the shifty Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater) to Stockholm with the hopes of enticing the Castlemans into giving him intimate details for his commissioned biography on Joe Castleman. As Joan tries to evade Bone, tolerates her husband flirting with his assigned photographer (Karin Franz Körlof), and assures her son of the quality of his latest story, she is pressured more than ever before to confront how her life has led her to this point.
Much of the attention around The Wife has largely centered on Glenn Close’s Best Actress-worthy turn as the reserved yet content Joan Castleman, and for good reason. At first, her presence is almost too subdued, allowing for the attention to shower around Joe—the husband, the author, the Nobel laureate. Hopefully without saying much, this Stockholm trip is the end of the road for her in several profound ways. Yet it is Glenn Close’s sure-handed poise that generates electricity in her performance, far more than the usual role of a woman mustering enough courage to break from certain shackles. She is a “king-maker”, yes, but she also does not surrender her role as “peacemaker”, as all great wives and mothers inhabit. She knows when to negotiate in measured tones and when and to whom she sees best to unleash her concentrated fury and years of frustration.
On the other hand, I fear that not much attention has been devoted to Jonathan Pryce’s tricky execution of Prof. Joe Castleman. Reminding me of Jean-Louis Trintignant in 2012’s Amour, Pryce does a different kind of heavy lifting compared to Close. Close bottles up, whereas Pryce provides the front and makes their relationship appear as normal and expected to themselves and to others, including their children Susannah (Alix Wilton Regan, seen just early on and heard later in a phone call) and especially the sensitive David. Pryce’s carefree take on Joe contrasts well with David’s long-held and relatable resentment, exhibited by actor Max Irons with a slight whiny edge that only gets vindicated as the movie progresses. Playing into these is Christian Slater, nicely cast as Nathaniel Bone. Bone’s slimy reputation for weaseling into situations to help him write his next book holds him back when he sees the chance to uncover the truth about Joe and Joan Castleman.
The Wife loses a bit of its power when it shifts to flashback mode. Here, Harry Lloyd and newcomer Annie Starke (Glenn Close’s real-life daughter) play the younger Joe and Joan, respectively. Most of their screentime, however, does little to enlighten, comes off as truncated, and borders on melodramatic. The one compelling flashback moment that dwarfs its Stockholm, 1992 reference, in terms of emotional impact, is when Joe takes away the toddler-aged David before he can run into the house’s study, where Joan is busy at the typewriter. Less effective than the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flashes of the past seen earlier this year in You Were Never Really Here and Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, it would have been much better to stick to Stockholm in 1992. There (and in the bookending Concorde flight scenes), it becomes delicious to discover when director Runge and his wife and editor Lena Runge wisely let the actors perform without the need for cutting.
In all likelihood, only the acclaim surrounding Glenn Close’s spellbinding star turn will remain in the coming years. Such a shame, for The Wife lingers in the mind for other reasons besides Close. Pryce is impressive to watch, as is Slater, while Irons’ role undoubtedly hits close to home for many an offspring of famous artists or anyone who feels held back by their elder relatives. Most of all, the revealed moral dilemma that cannot be discussed here resonates with genuine balance, right up to the final exchange between mother and grown-up child. The Wife reminds us all that letting actors act can suffice for great cinema.
(Parental Note: The Wife has been rated R by the MPAA “for language and some sexual content”. It has also been rated 15 by the BBFC for “strong language” and “sex references”. The opening scene involves a clothed senior married couple slowly initiating into sexual activity.)
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.