Without Glenn Close, “The Wife” wouldn’t be much to write home about. A reasonably satisfying literary drama that takes the old “great woman behind every great man” trope and turns it inside out, director Björn Runge’s film is a brightly lit, bluntly appealing solid lob right down the middle. It has a couple of nice reversals, two or three good laugh lines, and a caustic but not too acid skewering of cultural institutions. It goes down easy, it’s relatively unmemorable and it’s fine. Close, on the other hand, is exquisite.
The film sets up its central dynamic right from the start, when acclaimed author Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) is awoken early morning with a call from Sweden — the call from Sweden every economist, scientist and author not named Bob Dylan spends their lives waiting for. And as the man from the Nobel committee reverentially rattles on, Joan Castleman (Glenn Close) quietly picks up another receiver. For the rest of the scene, Joan listens in without speaking, with Runge’s camera fixed on the character’s emotive eyes as she silently processes and appraises the developing situation. It’s the kind of visual approach the film will return several times over, and it pays off to greater and greater effect as the narrative goes on.
Soon Joan, Joe, and the struggling author son David (Max Iron) make their way to Stockholm for the week of ceremonies and adulatory events that comes before the awarding of the august prize. Naturally they bring with them all of the pre-existing issues, from Joe’s wandering eye, to Max’s struggle to live in his father’s long shadow, to that pesky wannabe-biographer Nathanial Bone (Christian Slater, with another wormy, playfully obsequious turn) who seems to trail them everywhere in the hopes of getting them to talk. The first act of the film is a flurry of cocktail parties and plane rides, and the director stages all of them with a similar compositional mandate, placing Joan in the center of the frame while interlocutors on one side talk over her to reach her husband on the other side.
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If those opening scenes effectively establish Joan as someone in the passenger’s seat of her own life, the rest of the film exists to deflate that false assumption and then bury it once it hits the ground. After receiving the fateful phone call, the ebullient Joe jumps and down crying “I won the Nobel! I won the Nobel!” and relying on a number of flashbacks to the young couple in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, the film goes on to show the myriad reasons why that statement is laughably false.
While “The Wife” exists to subvert that supportive partner to the great artist canard, that doesn’t mean that Close becomes a more assertive eater of scenery as the film goes on. If anything, her performance is a tour de force of reaction, of quiet calibrations and subtle facial inflections. The film opens with Joan woven into the scenery in mid-shots, and as we begin to better understand her role in this story, the character begins to occupy more and more space in the frame, while never losing her coolly analytical mien. Those who maintain that acting is all about reacting might very well have found their master text.
One such moment occurs when Joan joins the pestering biographer for a drink. As Slater lays out his well-articulated theories about the true nature of the Castleman’s artistic partnership, Close mostly sits there listening. Her mouth may emit little sound, but her eyes and brows speak volumes. One cannot over-stress the high-wire difficulty of Close’s accomplishment here. On one level, we see the character processing and cataloguing the information, and then as she carefully chooses her response, we can see the exact level of emotion she lets escape across her face. In that sense, we see both the actress Glenn Close performing her role, and that performance requires the character Joan Castleman herself to perform. She feels more than she shows, and she shows enough to let you know that she’s withholding. It’s a Mobius-strip masterwork of close-up film acting.
And yet, Close’s revelatory turn comes in an overall package that feels predictable and sedate. Runge brings little visual flair, but he is wise enough to get himself and every other encumbrance out of the way to let whatever fireworks spark in the lead actress’ eyes, because in this situation, that is the only choice to make. In the film’s most self-reflexively accurate line, Pryce acidly remarks, “I’m the blowhard husband, and she’s the stoic wife repressing a secret. We’ve seen it all before.” Indeed we have – but never with a lead performance this strong.
“The Wife” was the closing night selection of the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.