The Wife is written by Jane Anderson, based off the novel of the same name by Meg Wolitzer. It is written with superb eloquence. It stars Glenn Close as the eponymous wife, Joan Castleman, whose husband Joseph (Jonathan Pryce) has just won the Nobel Prize in literature, although it becomes clear that Joe is not quite deserving of the award. Close presents us with an Oscar-worthy performance whose understatement is matched only by the brief flashes of ferocity.
The writing and acting are top notch. As a film, however, The Wife is merely adequate. The standard visual choice is the closeup, and aside from some clever match cuts the shot structure is not particularly inspired. The film is set in Stockholm in the days leading up to Joe receiving his award, but, beyond some snow outside windows and one elegant overhead shot following a car down a street, we don’t get the feeling of being in Sweden in winter.
Of course, this limited visual scope keeps us in the insular world of the central relationship. We see Joe, who hides a childish nature behind an air of pomposity and verbosity, struggle to keep both his physical and mental health straight as he keeps up his lifelong facade. And we see, more importantly, Joan repress decades of silence and appeasement behind a thin smile. The limited aesthetic would seem to bolster the power of these two performances, yet intermittently the film will pointedly distract from them.
If the action were kept on Close and Pryce, The Wife would be a masterpiece, rising to the level of the modern marvel 45 Years. Instead, the script decides to fight with itself by utilizing a flashback structure, in which we see the blossoming relationship between the two central figures. As much as Annie Starke, Close’s daughter, does a lively job portraying Joan’s younger self, the flashbacks feel like people playing dress up. The acting is not as fiery. The time period is represented flatly and simply. And the information the flashbacks provide do not extend the narrative; they merely keep us from the performances that we came to see.
When the film is not bouncing back and forth in time, we are allowed to take in two of the best acting performances of the year thus far. Pryce’s is more showy than Close, but he still manages to present hidden emotions in his character that are juvenile and self-obsessed.
Close, on the other hand, is doing some of her finest work here. Armed with a character that shies from the spotlight and keeps her sentiments brief, she commands our attention instead with subtle non-verbal communication. Her words are pointed, her face contains multitudes, and the combination of the two creates a well-rounded character with years of baggage and motivations that go almost completely unsaid. Effortlessly, she allows the audience entry into the character, an allowance not afforded to the other characters in the film.
In one scene, when Joan is literally thrust into the spotlight, Close carves in cement the greatness of this performance. Impossibly, she manages to overstate her understated performance in the scene without sacrificing anything in the character. There is no telegraphing, no pointing toward a singular emotional angle. It is a pivotal point of change in a character, and it is illustrated with a silent depth of emotion that Close embodies with enrapturing poise.
To apply a traditional rating system to it, Close’s performance receives an A. The film, taken in total, does not rise to the same occasion. There is the aforementioned visual blandness, the hindrance of the flashback structure. There are also conveniently placed plot points that interrupt the elevating conflict between Joan and Joe before it reaches an apex.
The climax and epilogue are perhaps the most egregious shortcomings. The scene in which Close’s performance reaches the height of its crescendo, that final flourish, could well have served as the climax. The resolution and denouement could have been more efficient. Instead, the film continues on into more of the same. The conflict continues without truly progressing, and then it ends. And then there is a denouement. It feels anticlimactic, given the power of Close’s performance is undercut in these final scenes.
The Wife is lucky to sport one of the finest acting performances of 2018. It is sharply written and packed with tense emotions. When the film is not directly informed by Close’s performance, however, it quickly loses its way. After giving her character a fully-realized, complex identity, the film ends in a whimper. And that is a shame.
The Wife: B
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)