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Some of the very best screen performances only fully reveal themselves on second viewing. Take Glenn Close in The Wife, an intriguing (if occasionally contrived) tragicomic drama lifted shoulder high by the six-time Oscar nominee in one of her most deliciously complex roles. When it comes to portraying conflicting emotions, Close has always been in a class of her own, thanks to her kaleidoscopically expressive eyes and precise physical gestures. But rarely has her ability to tell two stories with a single look been more astutely employed than in this elegantly melancholy portrait of a marriage in crisis.
Close plays Joan Castleman, steadfast partner of celebrated author Joseph (Jonathan Pryce), whom we first meet on the eve of his Nobel prize win in 1992. When the early morning phone call comes, Joe insists that his wife pick up the extension to share the news of his victory. We watch her listening to the announcement in closeup, a shifting ocean of pride, regret, astonishment, and… could that be horror? Even when Joe gets her to jump up and down on the bed with him as he sings “I won the Nobel! I won the Nobel!” there’s something about her manner that evokes a silent scream.
Joan is evidently proud of her husband, and performs dutiful service on their subsequent trip to Stockholm. She calls herself a “kingmaker”, and she’s clearly the keeper of his flame; holding his coat, administering his medication, picking crumbs out of his salt-and-pepper beard, and leaping to his defence (“don’t be hard on him”) when he forgets the names of his own novels’ characters. All this she bears with a polite smile, although there’s a fleeting hint of a flinch when Joe announces “My wife doesn’t write, thank God” in front of his peers, who promptly forget Joan’s name (“A pleasure, Jean”).
Meanwhile, wannabe biographer Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater, oozing leather-jacketed slime) circles the Castleman family like a shark, scratching away at what he believes to be a deep-seated malaise. Maybe it’s Joe’s high-handed attitude toward his aspiring-writer son David (Max Irons) that causes Joan pain – his inability to praise their offspring, dismissively describing him as “developing” his voice. Perhaps it’s Joe’s endless infidelities, a string of cliched dalliances that Joan tolerates with tight-lipped stoicism. (“Please don’t paint me as a victim,” she tells Nathaniel. “I am much more interesting than that.”) Or is it something worse – a secret buried so deep in the DNA of their relationship that no one may speak its unholy name?
Adapted from Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel by Jane Anderson, The Wife intersperses its 1990s narrative with flashbacks to the 1950s and 60s, when the couple first met at college. The young Joan and Joseph are played – rather brilliantly – by Annie Starke (Close’s real-life daughter) and Harry Lloyd; the former a star-struck student (“the girl with the golden touch”) whose story The Faculty Wife bespeaks great promise; the latter a married professor whose proclamations about authorship (“a writer must write as he must breathe”) stir lusty responses. Significantly, Joe only uses male pronouns (he, him) to describe writers, even when addressing a classroom of female students. Later, published-but-overlooked author Elaine Mozell (a bristling Elizabeth McGovern) warns Joan: “Don’t ever think that you can get their attention… the men, the ones who decide who gets to be taken seriously.” It’s a lesson Joan has clearly taken to heart.
Making his English-language feature debut, Swedish director Björn Runge keeps things admirably unfussy, giving his actors theatrical space to work their magic – all long takes and carefully composed frames. Pryce is excellent as the narcissist who quotes James Joyce like a stuck record, and whose once-lovable quirks (signing his name on a walnut) have become wearisome habits. In his infuriating company it’s easy to understand Joan’s quiet anguish at having put her own talents on hold in the service of his alleged greatness – her torment amplified by Jocelyn Pook’s score, heavy with yearning and regret.
Watching the film for a second time, with prior knowledge of the revelations of its final act, Close’s performance seemed even more nuanced, as if each look now meant something different. Yet perhaps I had always known exactly where this tale was leading. Close’s face in that opening movement tells you all you need to know about what has happened, and all that is to come. I think that’s what makes it so remarkable.
Source: The Guardian
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