Movie Reviews: The Wife (2017)

The weather is slowly starting to cool off, summer movie season has come to an end, and the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has just ended which can mean only one thing, it’s time for Oscar Season.  *Deep sigh*  While we still have a month or so to go before that trickle of Oscar hopefuls and talk becomes a flood, it’s still very much upon us as the dramas roll in and look to leave a lasting impression.  For those not around last year or not remembering, I’m going to try and avoid such talk about the worthiness of each film in each review, we have plenty of time for that and it seems needlessly aggressive and hyperbolic to start anointing who should be a nominee let alone a winner before all the contenders have gotten their day in the limelight.

With that in mind, our first likely contender actually debuted at TIFF last year, but it is only now seeing a theatrical release.  The film is directed by Swedish director Björn Runge in his English language debut though still setting most of it in Stockholm.  Stockholm of course being the home of the Nobel Prize, the award at the center of the movie, an adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s novel.  Jonathan Pryce plays an acclaimed and distinguished novelist and professor, Joe Castleman, who after a lifetime of beloved work, finally wins the 1992 Nobel Award in Literature.

Perpetually by his side is his wife, Joan, played by Glenn Close and it’s clear early on that she is the one who takes care of him.  She keeps him on schedule, manages his pills, acts as mediator with his writer son (who is desperately looking for approval), and a steadying influence with outsiders to his rasher actions.  She’s on the surface the dutiful wife, but as she tells a character in the movie, “[she] is much more interesting than that.  At first their relationship is surprisingly cute, but his narcissistic tendencies poke through and grow more and more apparent throughout (including the requisite affairs).  The tension is only driven up thanks to the efforts of another writer played by Christian Slater who is aspiring to write a biography about Joe.

It’s a slow build of tension though as Glenn Close unsurprisingly plays it mostly close to the vest.  She’s made a career out of playing cold characters and while I’d hardly call her character here cold, she’s certainly good at keeping her emotions in check and I’d argue that it almost becomes a metanarrative trait.  We get flashbacks to 1958 and beyond that show her start as a writer in the class of her married professor (Joe) and how she wound up in the situation she is now.  Wisely though, the focus is overwhelming on the “present day”, keeping them as a nice complement and nothing more.

Close is obviously the highlight and able to make a character enthralling who is very clearly in control and yet not necessarily making the decisions we all want her to make.  Pryce is also quite good, making for someone hard to watch at times and yet the way he just effortlessly slips into the loving half of an old married couple after acting like a right prick really enables the plot to unfold logically.  Max Irons (yes, the son of Jeremy) who plays the son comes across as a real doofus throughout and is impossible to take seriously, but it’s nice to see Slater allowed back into serious roles and one that plays to his strengths at that.

It’s just a performance film first and foremost, the style is functional and all, but it’s well-crafted at that.  Close is the reason to see it to be sure, but the plot is an effective thorough-line (predictable as it may be) and it never feels like she is struggling against the writing.  It’s a good if not particularly unique start to the season.