It is hardly news that a woman in Hollywood can find herself playing mother to an actor only four years her junior, as Glenn Close did to Robin Williams in The World According to Garp, which brought her the first of six Oscar nominations to date. But Close is an unusual case: she has never been young. She was 35 when she made that film (her debut) and already her face was flickering with the opaque amusement of a woman who knows more than she will ever be asked. Close by name, far away by nature.
In the new adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Wife, she plays Joan Castleman, who is so used to being sidelined that she has come to believe it suits her. Her husband, Joe (Jonathan Pryce), is a revered novelist; on the morning he learns he is to receive the Nobel Prize for literature, she listens in on the call on the extension. That’s her: an extension, an adjunct, her function spelled out in the film’s title. Except this isn’t the whole story. The couple’s names already sound interchangeable, and the director Björn Runge extends that confusion to their faces, too, with a match-cut from Joe on the phone in one room to Joan in another suggesting synthesis on a physiognomical level.
She was once a budding writer herself, and he was her professor. Young Joan (the excellent Annie Starke) wrote fiction, only to be knocked back by a sexist establishment and by a sour older novelist (Elizabeth McGovern) who told her not to think she could grab their attention – “they” being men. It is likely we would have got the message that Joan’s writing career was over even if the camera didn’t pan down to show the pages of her manuscript falling to the floor as Joe kissed her, but Runge includes the shot anyway.
Arriving in Stockholm, Joan is offered beauty treatments to keep her occupied while her husband is being fêted. Instead she accepts the offer of a drink with Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), who is itching to write Joe’s biography. He has turned up evidence that the Nobel winner’s professed indebtedness to her is more than mere uxoriousness. The news reaches the couple’s son, which gives Max Irons, the actor playing him, yet another reason to look downcast (he is already much slighted by Joe). Irons’s father, Jeremy, formed an acidic double act with Close when they played Claus and Sunny von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune, but no such luck for Irons fils, who has little to do but grimace and gurn.
Who cares? This is the Glenn Close show through and through, and it’s a treat to see her finding so many variations on the tight smile of the long-suffering spouse. (It could become a future drinking game: knock back a shot each time Close bats away another compliment or affects humility and you’d be sloshed in no time.) It all spills over eventually and, when it does, Joe and Joan are literary to the last – they hurl books at one another rather than saucepans like any normal couple.
The film is careful to show the love and light that suffuses the relationship despite its myriad betrayals. Joan is able to tell Joe his breath is bad with an affection that risks no offence. And when he proposes sex because they can’t sleep – rather, he can’t sleep: she was doing just fine until he woke her up – his come-on is not exactly sonnet-worthy: “You don’t have to do anything, just lie there,” he says. It’s a joke on her contribution to his career but also a plausible sign of rumpled familiarity, like the fantasy Joe invites her to entertain (that she is being made love to by some “young inarticulate stud”) and which announces the picture’s motif of puppets and proxies.
Runge is not the most confident director in his framing and staging, and he might have used more imagination and elegance when incorporating flashbacks. (What we get is not quite as blunt as close-up-followed-by-screen-going-swimmy but it isn’t far off.) At least The Wife has Close in its favour, not to mention timeliness. The Nobel ceremony itself resembles a game of Where’s Wally?, only it isn’t Wally you have to search for but a woman. Any woman.
The Wife (15)
dir: Björn Runge
This article appears in the 26 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Brexit crisis