A pair of towering performances are the jewels of Björn Runge’s adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s novel about a novelist and his wife whose long—and as it turns out, unusual—relationship is tested by his receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The generic title indicates that “The Wife” is not merely a singular story but one designed, mutatis mutandis, to apply to other spouses as well—indeed, to any marriage in which one partner takes advantage of the other.
Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce are Joan and Joseph Castleman in the tale, set in 1992. He’s an author renowned for an impressive body of work, awaiting a phone call that, he hopes, will inform him that he has been chosen to receive the prestigious award. His wife lies beside him in bed, her face shrouded in ambiguity. When the call finally comes, she celebrates with him; they actually jump on the mattress in a juvenile show of joy. Yet there’s a degree of wariness in her manner that suggests she is not entirely content.
At a party that follows, the uncertain mood continues, especially with the Castleman children. Susannah (Alix Wilton Regan), in the last stages of her pregnancy, is unfailingly ebullient, but her brother David (Max Irons), himself an aspiring writer, finds his father’s refusal to comment on his latest short story yet another slight. (Joan, by contrast, is effusive in her praise.)
Soon the couple is off to Sweden for the presentation ceremony, with a morose David tagging along, and Joan is still an enigma. The presence on the flight of Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), a would-be biographer of Joseph whose pleas for cooperation the author has rudely refused, does not make the mood any better. When they arrive in Stockholm, Joseph is feted and assigned a pretty photographer (Karin Franz Korlof) to document his triumph, Joan stays in the background, clearly not entirely happy with her husband’s continuing accolades to her unfailing support, always accompanied by a reminder to the effect that she’s not a writer herself.
Interspersed with the sequences that follow—of Joseph being prepared for the ceremonies, of Joan putting on a brave face while begging him not to thank her publicly for her years of quiet help—are flashbacks to the late 1950s and 1960s, when Castleman (played by Harry Lloyd) was a tweedy, charismatic young professor at the all-women’s Smith College and Joan (Annie Starke) a student in whom he took a special interest, inviting her to babysit for him and his unhappy wife. The teacher-student relationship turned romantic, of course, and in time they were married, though the scandal apparently derailed Joseph’s promising academic career until his writing gained him fame.
During the years at Smith Joan’s writing showed enormous promise, it seems, although a visiting alumna (a strong cameo by Elizabeth McGovern) tells her drunkenly that it’s almost impossible for a female novelist to be properly recognized. So Joan gave up her own writing and settled for aiding her husband with his, even as he proved repeatedly unfaithful (as he now seems ready to be with his pretty young photographer).
The whole truth eventually comes out as a result of prodding by Bone, who’s done a good deal of digging in the Smith archives and confronts Joan with his suspicions in a cat-and-mouse style- conversation at a Stockholm bar—one of the best sequences in the film, with Close and Slater lobbing words back and forth like expert tennis players. A later chat Bone has with David doesn’t bring acting on the same level between Slater and Irons, but it’s instrumental in putting the final touches to the revelation of how the marriage actually evolved and preparing the way for a culminating face-off between Joseph and Joan that begins at the Nobel Prize dinner.
Runge doesn’t bring a great deal of directorial imagination to “The Wife.” He’s content, with able support from cinematographer Ulf Brantas, production designer Mark Leese and costume designer Trisha Biggar, to provide a series of elegant backdrops and then give Close and Pryce free rein to sink their teeth into the meaty dialogue Jane Anderson has drawn from Wolitzer’s book. Both do superb work, with Close standing out for the subtlety and nuance of her performance. Though Irons is perfectly fine as the son who craves his father’s respect, the only other member of the cast really to match the two stars is Slater, who brings his ingrained cunning, shark-like quality to Bone with excellent effect.
The film moves quite deliberately, thanks to Lena Runge’s editing, but the stateliness gives the actors room to savor the material, and Jocelyn Pook’s score contributes to the mood without becoming overbearing.
“The Wife” ends in revelations that strain credulity; ultimately the story feels schematic rather than real. But, of course, it’s intended not merely as a tale of a couple who has given their lives to literature as well as one another in an unusual way, but as a parable of female submission generally in western society. If in the end it feels somewhat farfetched, it certainly conveys that larger point.
And it affords an opportunity for some remarkable actors to give award-caliber performances.