“Behind every great man…”
It’s a phrase used all too often to describe an underappreciated woman, yet the first word also expressly implies her place.
A critical examination of this concept — both in its positive and negative suggestions — forms the basis of the latest Glenn Close film, a slow burning relationship drama that packs in the tension below layers of context and subtle contempt.
Based on the novel of the same name by Meg Wolitzer, “The Wife” finds an aging Joan Castleman reexamining her life after her husband Joe learns he is to be given the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Set over the course of the award weekend in Sweden, the film examines individuality in marriage and the role of women in society unlike any other movie in recent history.
Screenwriter Jane Anderson turns Wolitzer’s poignant words into a wonderful play brought into three dimensions by six-time Academy Award nominee Close. As Joan, Close offers up the most internalized, self-reflective performance of her career, peeling layer upon layer off a doting wife and mother like an onion.
Each emotional revelation unfolds a new portrait of Joan’s inner psyche, giving Close an intricate character study that makes the most of her extensive theater background.
In a lot of ways, “The Wife” becomes a Broadway play with ever-changing sets and worldviews, allowing Close and veteran stage actor Jonathan Pryce to chew up the emotional scenery with nuance and precision.
Pryce delivers a terrific, love to hate him turn as Joe, a man relishing the fame and notoriety of his success but equally codependent on his wife to meet his basic needs. Throughout the film, Pryce is equally engaging and infuriating, sauntering around with excess bravado while also masking pain of his own.
Although they’ve never worked together before, Close and Pryce embody a weathered chemistry aged by decades of marriage that feels intimate and authentic. Their outstanding work showing the wear and tear of the couple’s relationship is reflected in the juxtaposition of flashback sequences of then literary professor Joe seducing his student Joan.
The expert casting of Close’s daughter Annie Starke as a young Joan further accentuates this dichotomy as Starke is a highlight among secondary performers.
Another masterful addition to the cast, Christian Slater balances a difficult amount of slime and charm as a nosy writer attempting to convince Joe to let him write Joe’s biography.
The intricate nuance to Close and Pryce’s performances is heightened by the masterful cinematography of Ulf Brantås under the direction of Björn Runge. There’s an intimacy to the visuals, especially in the lingering close ups, that provide added depth to the acting on screen.
While it’s true that much of “The Wife” feels captured from a stage play, Close’s best and most searing moments in the film are found in tightly composed, stark shots that allow audiences to revel in Joan’s inner turmoil.
Runge works meticulously to ensure audiences get the most out of the performances by cultivating moments in partnership with the actors, giving scenes time to breathe and then reining in the focus at just the right time.
If “The Wife” had Meryl Streep giving the exact performance Close does, it would be a shoo-in for multiple Academy Award nominations and a clear frontrunner for Best Actress.
As it stands, there’s just not enough notoriety around the film for it to receive much consideration.
However, Close should and will likely earn her seventh Oscar nomination and be a strong contender this spring.
Intimate and authentic, “The Wife” delivers gripping drama with top-shelf performances and expert filmmaking that make this independent feature worth a trip to the cinema.