This may come as a shock to some of you, but Glenn Close does not have an Oscar. Despite a half dozen nominations over the past 35 years, it has not happened for her. Six times, Close has been nominated for an Academy Award and lost. This doesn’t even include snubs. So, to say she’s due for a win is an understatement. This year, she’s gunning for Best Actress again, with “The Wife” representing one of her best performances to date. Unfortunately, the film surrounding her is a mixed bag, made worthy of a recommendation largely due to her work. Without her, the movie would be chilly, self serious, and overly sure that it’s being clever, when in fact it’s not. With her, it’s a flawed character study with a leading central turn. She just manages to push it over the finish line.
“The Wife” is its own worst enemy at times, especially when you consider how the marketing spoiled its “twist” early on. To be fair, even if you haven’t seen a Trailer, you’ll figure out the big reveal by the end of the first scene. If the film was unconcerned by that, that would be one thing. However, it seems so positive that it’s setting up a shocking third act revelation. That makes for a situation where you find yourself watching a somewhat dumb film that thinks it’s smart. Thank heavens for Close.
Joan Castleman (Close) used to be a talented writer during her collegiate days. Now, she’s a wife, mother, and soon to be grandmother. Her husband Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) is a celebrated literary figure, considered to be among the best of his generation. The night the movie begins, they’re awaiting word from the Nobel Prize folks about whether Joe is to be a recipient. He nervously eats candy, proposes sex with Joan, and essentially acts like a teenager. Joan is stoic yet supportive. Then, the call comes. Joe is a winner. They celebrate, but something seems off.
A first hint about their union comes when she cuts off their celebration, as if it seems wrong. Then, there’s the different ways that their adult children David (Max Irons) and Susannah (Alix Wilton Regan) look at them. David in particular has a frosty relationship with his father, partly due to his pursuit of writing as well. Joan has read his latest story, while it’s clear Joe has not. The difference hangs over their heads. David, Joan, and Joe head to Stockholm for the ceremony, while Susannah stays home to give birth. Also on the flight is Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), a journalist who has long hounded Joe for the rights to his life. Seen as a nuisance, he’s rudely dismissed by Joe, though Joan is far nicer.
As they prepare for the Nobel ceremony, Joan thinks back to her early days, where she (now played by Annie Starke) first met her husband (now Harry Lloyd). The details of their relationship, how Joe first became a published author, and the secrets she’s carried for decades all fester to the surface. At the same time, Nathaniel is digging into the past and may just know the truth. It all comes to a head right after the Nobel Prize is handed out.
Glenn Close is why this film manages to work. She is giving her all in the service of this character. In fact, this stands tall as one of her best performances ever. When you consider how much is on her back, it makes the accomplishment all the more impressive. So much of what is going on is going on in her head, so Close’s eyes bear watching at all times. The emotion and history on her face is noticeable throughout. Your mileage may vary on which role has been her best, but this stands tall among “Fatal Attraction” and the like. She’s worthy of Best Actress consideration, that’s for sure.
If there’s a second success to mention in “The Wife,” it’s the supporting turn from Christian Slater. Though the movie undercuts him at the end, he’s a lively figure and the only other interesting character. A central scene set at a bar between Close and Slater manages to have some sparks fly. More focus on their interactions would have helped. Jonathan Pryce is solid as Joe but doesn’t have much to do. You see a lot of what he does, but never quite why, and that’s an issue. The aforementioned Max Irons and Alix Wilton Regan are underutilized, while Harry Lloyd and Annie Starke can’t elevate their flashbacks. Supporting players here include Karin Franz Körlof, Elizabeth McGovern, and others, but this is 100% Close’s showcase. This is called “The Wife,” after all.
Director Björn Runge and writer Jane Anderson are at their best when working in service of Close. They’re at their worst when trying to cultivate their big surprise. Whatever subtlety the book had is circumvented here in the pursuit of drama. The quiet moments are too quiet, while the louder ones are too loud. Remove Close and “The Wife” is a two to two and a half star misfire. Luckily, Anderson and Runge have her, so they slip by with a light recommendation.
The reason to see “The Wife” is to see Close in action. Would it be a weak vehicle for her to be nominated and/or win the Oscar for? Yes. Does that still happen from time to time? Of course. Close is a contender this year, so this movie is one to be reckoned with. Had the film on the whole been stronger, she might be a lock right here and now. As it stands, she’s in the running, so sleep on this one at your own risk.