The Wife: Glenn Close deserves an Oscar for rising above this unconvincing drama

By Karen Gordon

Rating: C-plus

There is already Oscar buzz for Glenn Close for her role in The Wife, and it’s justified. In fact, the performances in this family drama are all top notch.  But the movie itself is another story, falling short of the depths of character its cast can reach.  

Close stars as Joan Castleman, the elegant wife of the esteemed best-selling novelist Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce). It’s set in 1992. As it opens, the Castlemans receive an early morning phone call from Stockholm informing them that Joe has been named the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. 

At a subsequent celebration, we get a better sense of the couple. Joe is vain, arrogant and socially clumsy, with a wandering eye. Joan’s role is that of the stoic spouse.

Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce in The Wife. As a couple, they make no sense.

Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce in The Wife. As a couple, they make no sense.

She is cool, calm and secretive - the long suffering, incredibly competent wife and mother, who rises above it all and is the glue that holds the family together.

We see more of their dynamic in action when their son David (Max Irons) shows up. David’s an aspiring writer. He’s given his father his latest short story to read hoping for feedback. What he’s really yearning for, of course is validation and, more to the point, love. But his deliberately oblivious father seems to take some cruel pleasure in withholding it.

Joan quietly rides shotgun on family relations, reminding her husband to do basic things like take medication, and aiming to tamp down lingering ill-will with kind words for her son.

So, even before they get on the plane to Stockholm to collect the prize we can already tell that there’s a rot at the core of this clan. 

Joe and Joan present a front of solidarity to the outside world, but something’s off. And that’s underlined on the plane when they encounter a writer, played by Christian Slater, who has been contracted to write a book about Joe. We can tell by his manner that he has something on them. He’s everywhere they are in Stockholm, aiming to coax out secrets. 

There are secrets to be coaxed, of course. But really the movie revolves around whether you buy the idea that these two polar opposites have stayed together, given the tensions.

To help us understand this character-conundrum, the movie jumps back and forth in time, first to the late ‘50s when the young Joe is a university prof, in an earlier marriage and already a father. 

But his pattern remains. He has an adulterous eye and a predisposition towards withholding approval. Young Joan is a straitlaced, talented young writer in his class.  In a meeting, presumably to talk about her work, he asks her to babysit. Somehow the two end up together.  But we see little in the way in the way of chemistry or frankly, joy between the two of them in those early years. 

Of course, we learn more as the film unfolds. But the problems at the core of the relationship aren’t quite believable given who these two are. Would a woman of this depth, this sense of organization and morality, stay in a long-term relationship with this superficial narcissist? 

The Wife is based on the best-selling novel by Meg Wolitzer and it’s possible that some of the subtext that made the novel so popular is missing in action in this adaptation. The screenplay is unconvincing as an anchor for the drama.

And that’s in spite of some terrific performances. Pryce nicely captures the capricious vanity of this man who seems to live to lap up the spotlight. 

But the film belongs to Close. In a contained performance, Close conveys the pain of decades of hurt and betrayal in a few seconds with the slightest of gestures. It’s beautiful work and, for what it’s worth, could win her an Oscar nod. But if she does, it will be in spite of the movie, rather than because of it.

The Wife. Directed by Björn Runge. Written by Jane Anderson, from the novel by Meg Wolitzer. Stars Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Christian Slater. Opens Friday, Sept. 21 at the Varsity in Toronto and in Vancouver.