“Don’t paint me as a victim. I am much more interesting than that.”
“Actress X sets the screen ablaze.” Combustible platitudes such as the former sentence find their way onto many posters and for your consideration spots come winter, but the repetition has rendered the phrase moot. Yet, for all of its frequent use, no other saying could adequately do Glenn Close’s performance justice. Cool from the outset, Joan Castleman (Close) wouldn’t seem the be the sort of fiery character to earn such a descriptor; she manages the ego and career of her husband, writer Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), without fuss or drama. But she would be well within her right to pick a fight. Joe Castleman is a Philip Roth-esque cipher whose status as a titan of writing is besieged by similarly vaunted inadequacies. Joe’s pending Nobel Prize for literature has created a fissure between the publically demure Joan and the boisterous persona Joe has fostered. More than a few hours of separation warrants interrogation. The mere discussion of their son’s writing career invites criticism of David (Max Irons) on Joe’s part. Joan recollects another young Castleman who struggled with his prose and voice.
Furthering the divide between husband and wife is the presence of another ambitious writer, Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), who could make his own career moment by chronicling the myth and the man inside of Joe Castleman. Joe consistently and enthusiastically rebuffs the biographer, but Joan knows better than to slight someone so talented with words and in possession of a high-profile outlet. Forty years together has defined the Castleman’s profiles, but 72 hours in Stockholm may destroy everything that they have come to build. Outbursts are truncated only by the joyful news of becoming grandparents for the first time, but it’s not much longer before they start sparring again. Each betrayal, casual or otherwise, leads the Castleman couple closer to a battle of resentments that could rival even Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in terms of shattering emotional torment.
Based on Meg Wolitzer’s novel of the same name, The Wife inverts the myth of The Great Male Author to instead focus on the wife behind the scenes. In that regard, a better choice as the lead of the film couldn’t be found. With six Academy Award nominations to her name and no win yet, Glenn Close is as underrated as women of her talent come. Not that this film should succeed only as a vehicle for Close to finally win that Oscar, but if there is a better performance this year, I’d be surprised. The prestigious, put-upon wife role has been brought about in various incarnations before, but those parts are defined by the tirade that comes at film’s end. Close chooses to relay with gusto the smaller moments of a marriage. Joan’s face is less a canvas than a fine vase that has flaws that are almost imperceptible, but the overall effect is no less piercing.
Hoping a fabrication becomes a truth on its own, Joan has ignored the vulgarities that are always excused of great artists, only to realize the truth doesn’t reconcile with a lie out of convenience. Not even for marriage.
Much of The Wife is devoted to the dynamic between Joan and Joe that has unfurled over time. Jonathan Pryce admirably dodges around Close’s perries, but the audience knows that the death blow is coming. Each indignity eventually flourishing into a fury that leaves only scorched earth in its wake. Getting through some of the more trivial flashbacks to Joan’s finest hour is the trickiest part of the film, but the climactic moment is worth the wait.
Glenn Close told Michael Douglas that she was not “going to be ignored” in 1987’s Fatal Attraction, with The Wife, she’s putting the rest of the world on notice. Hopefully, the Academy pays attention this time.