By Peter Travers
In Swedish director Bjorn Runge’s film version of the 2003 Meg Wolitzer novel, the brilliant Glenn Close plays Joan Castleman, the wife of celebrated author Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), who’s just won the Nobel Prize for literature. For him, the win is better than sex, which the lusty lion enjoys quite a lot even (and especially) outside the bedroom he shares with his wife. For her, however, the triumph sparks a crisis of identity and conscience that builds as the couple arrives in Stockholm. Adoration will be lavished on Joe; meanwhile, Joan takes her accustomed place in his shadow. There’s a secret at the heart of her resentment, of course, though thanks to a canny script by Jane Anderson (Olive Kitteridge), it feels perfectly of a piece with what’s happening onscreen. It also doesn’t hurt that, though this portrait of a woman who finds the courage to stand up in a man’s world is set in 1992, this particular story comes at the height of our #TimesUp moment.
But it’s Close who takes it to the next level with a powerfully implosive performance that doubles as an accumulation of details that define a marriage. She never telegraphs Joan’s feelings, letting them unravel slowly as we watch her attend parties as a buildup to the big night. Runge breaks up the present-day scenes with flashbacks to 1958, when Joan — incisively played by Close’s real-life daughter, Annie Starke — is taking a creative writing class at Smith taught by the young Joe (Harry Lloyd). The affair that the professor starts with his mega-talented student culminates when he leaves his wife and baby to marry her. And what of this young woman’s career? “My wife’s not a writer,” the present-day Joe smugly announces to reporters, as Joan sucks up the slight. It’s one more to add to a collection underlined by the Nobel committee’s sexist suggestion that she join the wives of the other male winners on a shopping expedition. And then there’s Joe hotly coming on to a flirty photographer (Karin Franz Korlof) assigned to assist him in Sweden.
Why the hell does this long-suffering spouse stay with this skirt-chasing narcissist? There are the grown children, of course: Susannah (Alix Wilton Regan), who’s pregnant, and David (Max Irons), a struggling writer waiting in vain for his dad to throw him a crumb of encouragement. But Joan’s reasons for playing the good wife go deeper. The script wisely refuses to lay them out in dialogue. No need. Everything you need to know about Joan comes through in Close’s subtle and simmering portrayal, her eyes a window to a wounded soul. Just don’t call Joan a victim — the star makes it clear that Joe’s wife is nobody’s patsy. There’s a witty scene in which she plays cat-and-mouse with a journalist (Christian Slater, doing human-slime to perfection) eager to write a tell-all bio of the celebrated novelist with or without his permission. She eviscerates the snoop with scalpel-like precision. And her final confrontation with Joe will have you cheering.
Close plays this ignored, pushed-aside woman like a gathering storm, drawing us into the mind and heart of a heroine who’s not going to take it any more. The actress has received six acting nominations without ever winning an Oscar. The Wife, a funny and fierce showcase for her prodigious talents, might just end the drought. You can’t take your eyes off her.