Glenn Close is the only living actor who has been nominated for six or more Oscars without winning one. She is in the company of such greats like Peter O’Toole (honorary award), eight nominations, Richard Burton, seven nominations and Deborah Kerr and Thelma Ritter both with six nominations, all deceased. Her turn in the new film The Wife, is most likely going to earn her a seventh nomination, and it is indeed a glorious performance.
Set in the 1990’s The Wife is a quiet, slow burning story about famous author Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) who after a lifetime of literary acclaim gets the “call” that he has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Joe’s reserved, supportive, almost stoic wife Joan (Close) is understandably happy for him, but there is something going on underneath all the celebrations.
The Wife is more of a story about a marriage than it is a story about Close’s character. Despite this and Pryce’s excellent performance, it’s Close’s movie. Most of the film takes place in Stockholm during the events leading up to the Nobel Prize Ceremony. Joe and Joan are joined there by one of their two children David (Max Irons), their daughter, Susannah (Alex Wilton Regan) is very pregnant and cannot attend. David has a thwarted relationship with his father, who he sees as pompous, arrogant, and selfish. David is an inspiring writer, and is resentful that his father is not only hyper-critical of his fiction, but that he takes little interest in his writing at all. Joan, obviously the more compassionate and affectionate parent, thinks David’s work is very good and he shows great promise. The dynamic between David and his work and his parents is a portent of things to come.
Christian Slater plays a dogged author (Nathaniel Bone) that wants to write Joe’s official biography, and is so determined that he follows the Castlemans to Stockholm. On the airplane (the now retired Concorde, actually), Joe is cordial to Bone, but clearly states he will not consent to information or interviews. When Joan ventures out by herself because she is bored, and perhaps annoyed by the laudatory sycophants that surround her preening husband, she consents to a drink with Nathaniel that turns into several. Nathaniel’s probing questions bring subtle revelations that start to crack at the façade of Joan and Joe’s successful marriage. When he digs too deep, Joan’s reaction hints that indeed there is something rotten in Denmark.
The film is such a subtle journey where long conversations reveal big things and explosive scenes reveal small things. It’s a slow cooker that sometimes frustrates the viewer, but always engages them. Close’s performance is a subtle masterpiece in film acting. If you want to see what great film acting is, just watch the ceremonial dinner scene over and over again. It’s all about the eyes, and the face. Close is amazing here as she listens to, and really hears her husband’s speech. It washes over her face and her reaction and emotions slowly change and escalate. It is a masterful example of craft and underscores that idea that acting is listening and reacting.
This is a film for the discerning film goer, who isn’t obsessed with answers and neat resolutions; you may find the ending challenging. It’s also a very good film that unfolds slowly, powerfully, like a great novel. How much you like the film may depend on how much you feel for the wife, played by Close. Chances are, you will feel a great deal.
Directed by Bjorn Runge with a screenplay by one of my favorite writers Jane Anderson ( I sat next to her at lunch once) based on the novel by Meg Wolitzer.