Here’s a film to be taken seriously by serious people. The sort of detailed, A-level film that earns a viewer’s respect for its intelligence in a marketplace of mind-numbing hoopla. It’s not a film you love for its uplift. It’s a film you appreciate for its honesty about the cracks and crevices that a long lifetime forges. Hopes that didn’t fly. Loves that evolved into stilted compromises. Promises that hit the skids.
Swedish director Björn Runge’s “The Wife” is a warts-and-all portrait of the long, committed marriage of a couple in old age. Glenn Close constructs an authoritative performance as Joan Castleman, a cultured woman in her 70s whose husband has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Joe (the equally superb Jonathan Pryce), ecstatic from the late-night phone call from Sweden announcing the news, lifts Joan to stand on the bed with him and bounce together like kids on a trampoline. A brilliant, self-important Philip Roth type with a brutally caustic sense of humor, Joe never believed he’d win the big brass ring.
Joan is thrilled, too, but oh so subtly ambivalent, showing whatever resentment she carries just glancingly. She remembers once being the ultimate prize, the most important part of Joe’s life.
The title of the film lays her situation on the line, as she watches him prepare for photographs that will erase her from history. To call a woman “the wife” is the most anonymous, most uncredited of labels. And Joan has held that unobtrusive role for decades, shadowed by the great man of letters at first thankfully, then willingly, if not always happily.
The story travels from the present day to 1958 and 1968 and 1992, from Connecticut to Stockholm, clarifying her inner tension and watching it grow. Runge, an author himself, gives the film a solid dramatic backbone, looping across time and place without ever losing focus, revealing important small things along the way.
The film studies the narcissism and neurosis that young Joe channeled into fiction, turning it first into a teaching career and later publishing to critical acclaim. It shows us the naive hero worship that young Joan (seamlessly played by Close’s daughter Annie Starke) felt for her eloquent, handsome professor and its growth into true mutual romance. Of course, Joe was already married and a father at that point, but Joan saw no sense in questioning a relationship that felt foreordained. She even believed they could reconcile when she was the wife and he continued to stray. Early on, Joan knew how to construct a dense work of fiction.
Christian Slater adds a level of intrigue to the story as Nathaniel Bone, a stalkerish biographer researching Joe’s life for an unauthorized life story. Introduced as a wheedling nuisance trying to grab an interview on their flight to Stockholm, Slater captures a fine note of professional prying. Joe moves Nathaniel and Joan side by side in the background as he shares handshakes and championship grins with the luminaries of physiology and medicine and economics. Nathaniel gradually becomes the film’s detective, offering Joan his insights into Joe’s life in hopes of getting hers. The film resembles a Mozart-and-Salieri story that isn’t pretty, and Runge deals with the later developments in a genuinely affecting, even moving way.
“The Wife” is a technically polished, handsomely produced film, using its pomp and circumstance ceremonies and banquets and Swedish locations to fine effect. But it could be staged in a high school auditorium if it kept the radiant Close in the role of Joan. Pryce gives the film its noisy racing heart, but she provides its expressive soul. This could be — should be — the part that finally wins the six-time Oscar nominee her award.