THE WIFE

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Bjorn Runge

Stars: Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Max Irons, Christian Slater, Annie Stake, Harry Lloyd, Elizabeth McGovern, Karin Franz .Korlof, Alix Wilton Regan.

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Behind every great man there is a great woman, according to the maxim, and that is certainly borne out in this intelligent and thought-provoking character study from Swedish director Bjorn Runge (Daybreak, etc).

The time is 1992. New York author Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) is regarded as America’s greatest living writer and he is about to win the Nobel Prize for literature. The Nobel committee has cited his body of work for the complexity of his characters and the humanity evident in his novels. Accompanying him to Stockholm for the ceremony are his patient, dutiful and supportive wife of 35 years Joan (Glenn Close) and son David (Max Irons, from The Book Thief, etc), himself an aspiring author who desperately craves his father’s approval. But maybe he is asking the wrong parent.

As the ceremony reaches its climax, Joan’s demure personality gives way to thirty years of repressed humiliation and stewing resentment as each social engagement seems to lead her to reflect back on her own life and what she has given up along the way. Soon cracks appear in Castleman’s veneer. But following the awards ceremony Joan finally refuses to remain silent and in the background. She gives way to thirty years of bottled up frustration, humiliation, accumulated regrets, and stewing resentment, leading to some painful revelations and a revealing confrontation.

Also present is writer Nathaniel Bone (an excellent Christian Slater) who is seeking to write an unauthorised warts and all biography on Castleman but is rebuffed by the author. His persistence, probing questions and disingenuous style suggests that he knows more secrets about the source of Castleman’s celebrated prose.

There are several extended flashback sequences that take us back to 1958 to when Joan (played by Annie Starke, Close’s real-life daughter) was an aspiring writer who was attracted to her handsome teacher Joe Castleman (played by Harry Lloyd, from Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, etc). Joan agreed to babysit for Joe and his wife, but soon began an affair. Joan also helped Joe polish his debut novel and prepare it for publication. Joan had aspirations of becoming a novelist herself, but Elaine Mozzell (a cameo from Elizabeth McGovern), a visiting successful author on a lecture tour, advised her to give up any hopes of finding success as a female writer because the publishing industry was so male oriented. She has shunned the limelight while Joe basked in his success.

The Wife is based on the best-selling 2003 novel written by Meg Worlitzer and has been carefully adapted to the screen by Emmy winning script writer Jane Anderson (the award-winning HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge, etc). The pair bring a decidedly feminist perspective to the world of literature and the secrets and lies that shape a marriage. The dialogue is rich and laden with subtle insights.

Runge handles the material with intelligence and insight, and it feels very European in style. Cinematographer Ulf Brantas (better known for his collaborations with filmmaker Lukas Moodyson) uses long takes and a steady camera to focus on the characters. There are also some wonderful establishing shots of Stockholm that give us the essence of the city, although Glasgow itself doubled for the streets of the city. Production design from Mark Leese is excellent and captures the grand nature and lavish setting of the Stockholm Institute which hosts the awards presentation.

Performances from the leads are uniformly strong, and Close and Pryce develop a believable rapport. Close dominates the film though with one of her best performances, an understated and nuanced reading of Joan’s emotional turmoil. She finds texture and unexpected layers to her character as she explores Joan’s simmering resentment and is already attracting plenty of awards buzz. Pryce is also strong as the narcissistic, prickly and egotistical Joe. And Slater delivers one of his best performances as the unctuous and knowing Bone. Irons is also good as the moody David, but his character remains too much of a one-dimensional character.

★★★

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