Starring Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Christian Slater, Max Irons, Elizabeth McGovern; directed by Bjorn Runge; 100 minutes; R for strong language and some sexual material.
When “The Wife” appeared on the festival circuit last year, the call went up almost immediately: This, finally, might be the movie to win Glenn Close the Oscar that has eluded her over the course of six nominations.
It turns out the hype is true. Close delivers a breathtaking performance in a film that is nominally an adaptation of a Meg Wolitzer novel but could as easily have been reverse-engineered precisely to exploit the lead actress’ singular expressive gifts.
“The Wife” is a handsome production that delicately skewers literary-world pretensions and Great Man mythmaking. But primarily, “The Wife” offers viewers a chance to observe one of the finest actresses of her generation working at the very top of her shrewd, subtle, superbly self-controlled game.
As “The Wife” opens, Joan Castleman (Close) has just settled in for the night with her husband, Joe (Jonathan Pryce), a famous novelist. About 5 a.m., the phone rings, Joe picks up and his life is changed: He’s won the Nobel Prize in literature.
Director Bjorn Runge stages the moment perfectly, conveying simultaneously the Castlemans’ excitement and the fact that they were expecting it all along. Moments later, Joan and Joe are jumping on the bed like kids, sing-songing, “I won the Nobel.”
Or was that “we?” That’s the question that animates the rest of a film that takes place on the couple’s trip to Sweden, where Joan reflects on her life with Joe, the sublimating of her own literary ambitions to serve his, and an inescapable realization about their relationship that she has repressed but can stay hidden no longer.
As crafty as “The Wife” is as it wends its way through shifting dynamics, it is through Close’s performance that the story’s emotional arc is made manifest. Whether she’s fending off a nosy writer, politely brushing off a solicitous minder or placating her insecure son (Max Irons), Joan is a paragon of self-possession and quiet but steely will.
That veneer will ultimately crack, but in Close’s finely calibrated portrayal, the fault lines are just barely visible. Close has been doing such good work for so long that it’s been easy to take her for granted.
With “The Wife,” she has been given the perfect platform to declare that, like her character in that film, and like Joan in this one, she will not be ignored.