What’s written on the page rarely tells the entire story. For forty years, Joan Castleman (Glenn Close) has been the epitome of support, holding the family down and doing the nitty gritty while her writing husband, Joe (Jonathan Pryce) crafts a living as a world-renowned author. The “genius” Joe isn’t easy to spend time with, but the love is unwavering.
Or at least, it has been. One night, Joe receives the call of a lifetime, being informed he’s been selected as the year’s recipient for the Nobel Prize in Literature. It’s off to Stockholm, Sweden for the Castleman clan, which includes budding writer David (Max Irons), a son who’s desperately trying to break out of the shadow his father casts over him. What should be a time of celebration turns into contempt, as skeletons once buried deep in the psyche become unearthed on the biggest night of David’s life.
It’s easy to see the title of The Wife along with the elderly stars that make up two-thirds of the top billing and write it off as a generic, uneventful viewing fare that plays better for an elderly audience. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Movies adapted from novels don’t always feel this effortless in their translation, but without reading the book, it feels like little—if anything, was lost from the 2003 hard copy to the silver screen.
The novel is brought to life by Swedish director Björn Runge. As most talky dramas of this ilk are inclined to be, the standard “won’t win any awards” applies. But, this is a subtly impressive feature using the Stockholm locale and hotel interior to an advantage, creating a feeling of cabin fever the deeper into the runtime it goes. There really is nowhere to go in the dead end of winter, which often forces people to confront dormant demons because there’s no choice. Runge keeps the focus squarely on the cast, using a very stable hand that routinely fixates itself on a subject for seconds, even when the subject itself isn’t delivering dialogue. Again, subtle, yet noteworthy, stuff that gives a level of intimacy to the proceedings. Perhaps the best thing that Runge does is use flashbacks at the opportune times to gradually provide more substance to the characters while maintaining pacing and flow.
Gradually compelling is the best phrase to describe The Wife. Writer Jane Anderson’s adapted screenplay from author Meg Wolitzer can be likened to putting ingredients in the slow cooker and letting them simmer for a few hours to get your ideal dish. Takes some time, but as that timer runs down, everything comes together and you’re salivating as it becomes closer to completion. What is most fascinating (and unforeseen) about The Wife is how it captures the zeitgeist of the #MeToo movement without being super overt about doing so. There’s no abuse of the sexual variety in this movie. As the movement has shown, though, there’s more than a few ways that abuse can manifest. Sometimes, the worst kind of abuse is systematic; the kind that makes an individual feel repressed and unable to show the world who they are, and what they can do. The Wife tackles this, be it within the dynamic of a marriage, or the parameters of society.
The Wife is, unequivocally, Close’s film. The script is sound, but the veteran actress absolutely makes the material stick and resonate significantly in a way that it probably wouldn’t with someone else. There are certainly places where she’s allowed to be impassioned. By and large, however, Close’s performance is one of controlled consternation and intensity. Her eyes frequently tell the entire story of a woman who simultaneously had to give up her professional dreams and even her dreams of simply being a mother. She’s flanked in support by Pryce, playing the pompous literary genius/manipulator of words perfectly, and Christian Slater, assuming the role of that type of longtime fan who may or may not have become a little jaded after meeting his longtime hero. Of the main foursome, Jeremy Irons’ son doesn’t quite have the magnetism of his father yet. He’s fine overall, if somewhat overpowered by the old hands in scenes that need him to have a little more force.
It is somewhat fitting that The Wife takes place in Stockholm, the birthplace of the eponymous Stockholm Syndrome term. The story is a lot of things that the nondescript title doesn’t suggest, but essentially, it’s one woman’s fight against suppression—led first and foremost by a spectacular performance from a legendary thespian.
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