From its deceptively dismissive title on down, director Bjorn Runge’s “The Wife” is much more than its premise suggests, anchored by not one but two performances that dimensionalize not just a marriage but a professional partnership that, as in real life, only seems comprehensible from the inside. Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce bring to volatile, vibrant life the accumulated regret and resentments, as well as generosity and love, of a discontented wife and her prize-winning novelist husband whose shared struggle both bonds them and forges a rift that’s unable to be healed.
Close stars as Joan, the ceaselessly patient wife of acclaimed novelist Joe Castleman (Pryce), whose work earns him a Nobel Prize for Literature. For her, a position even on the periphery of his spotlight is too much; she would rather plan Joe’s itinerary and organize his medication in complete anonymity than receive another syrupy compliment insisting that she’s the reason he writes so well.
Their son David (Max Irons), meanwhile, struggles to escape his father’s shadow, developing projects even as Joe treats his work dismissively, if he agrees to discuss it at all. So when the three of them travel to Stockholm for the Nobel ceremony, Joan tries to keep the peace and maintain harmonious outward appearances — including to Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), a reporter determined to write Joe’s biography, with or without their help.
Each new social event leading up to the ceremony seems to send Joan into a tailspin of self-reflection, recalling their younger days not only when they first met, but when her own dreams of being a novelist were met by the disinterest of a male-driven writing community.
Joe, meanwhile, relishes all of the attention he’s receiving, especially from a beautiful young photographer named Linnea (Karin Franz Korlof, “A Serious Game”) assigned by his publisher to document the event. But after Nathaniel Bone reveals that he intends to write Joe’s story, including details about his and Joan’s past — and present — that they might not want revealed, Joan is forced to take a long, hard look at their relationship, both personal and professional, and decide whether honoring her husband’s achievements is enough for her to feel fulfilled.
Close is already attracting awards buzz for her performance as Joan, and it’s well-deserved: in word and action, she actively defies the limitations of playing a “Great Man’s Wife,” while showcasing the skills that would enable such a woman to maintain that perfect, formulaic fiction to the rest of the world.
Not just refined but wonderfully calculating, Joan avoids the spotlight not only so her husband can enjoy its spoils, but also to keep it from shining too brightly on the absence of her own accomplishments — a self-awareness that she studiously practices so that when the Nathaniel Bones of the world come snooping around Joe’s legacy, she can rebuff their efforts with the silver-tongued grace that her husband lacks.
What she realizes is that she is protecting her own identity, and her own role in Joe’s success, which too much attention would roundly spoil for both of them. That only the Nobel Prize could disturb her resentments shows how deeply and successfully she’s buried them.
But what’s interesting is how a parallel storyline, set in the late 1950s when she was a student and he a teacher, underscores the specificity of their relationship, and how effectively Close and Pryce cultivate that sense of intimacy that only exists after many, many years together. Then, she was a student, astute enough to recognize she was falling in love with her professor, while coming to terms with the fact that the world was not interested in hearing her voice. (Of the movie’s many subtleties, this is probably its least successful; the scene in which a gathering of male editors scoff at prose submitted by a woman, about a woman, feels especially broad.)
Consequently, the implementation of those first steps together feel at once naïve and pragmatic, almost transactional; she desperately wants them to be together, but the way her encouragement of his writing gives her a voice becomes much-needed nourishment for her own creative instincts.
Together, even when their love is young and in bloom, they both seem pretentious and almost comically self-serious. But what we soon discover is that only she outgrows that impulse, or at least recognizes it between them, while it becomes his outward face as he quietly belittles David when he embarks on his career, or worse, in mixed company suggests that she has none at all.
Close’s Joan has spent a lifetime shining on these small indignities, while Joe feels as if he’s answered for them by making a spectacle of his love for her, except without properly attributing credit where it’s due. Pryce makes that condescension and oblivious truly feel lived in, a part of a relationship where it’s been occasionally rejoined but mostly ignored, allowing the two of them to move forward on paths that slightly diverge but only enough for one or both to notice at big moments — such as when one wins the Nobel Prize.
Slater is suitably oily in his shamelessness, but in spite of his seeming compassion for Joan, one wishes Nathaniel was given as much nuance as the characters he’s effectively coming between. Irons, similarly, oozes dejectedness but seems to serve a narrative and thematic purpose more than to exist autonomously as a fully-realized person.
But what ultimately works most profoundly for the film is that its intimacy, its specificity, feels less like the culmination of Joan’s life experiences and more like an epiphany, or maybe an origin story, for what’s yet to come from her. As in any other context, “The Wife” is a title less descriptive than an individual deserves, but it serves a vital purpose for both Joan and the film, underscoring the fact that she ultimately learns how to be herself — and her best self — as a direct result of being defined by someone else’s reflection of her.