One of the things I so admired about “The Wife” was the spot-on casting of the actors assigned with the monumental task of playing Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce in their younger years.
Close and Pryce are going to be transcendent in a sharply written, character-driven, intense domestic drama set against the backdrop of a Nobel Prize ceremony. We know that. (And yet we’re STILL blown away by their work. More on that later.)
Ah, but when the time comes for the years to melt away so we can meet these characters 30 or 40 years in the past, it’s a tough and tricky task to find young actors who of course must pass the “OK I can see the resemblance” test but, more important, can carry their scenes so we don’t find ourselves tapping our feet, waiting for the movie to return to present day and those two great stars.
Annie Starke and Harry Lloyd play the young versions of the Close and Pryce characters in “The Wife,” and maybe the best compliment I can give them is to say their scenes set in the 1950s and 1960s are nearly as riveting and nuanced and impactful as the sequences in the main story, which takes place in the early 1990s.
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Pryce plays Joseph Castleman, a novelist of towering talent, success and fame (and ego to match) who is in the conversation as the greatest literary voice of his generation.
Close is Joe’s wife, Joan, who fell in love with (the married) Joe when she was his (greatly gifted) writing student at Smith College in the late 1950s, and set aside her own career ambitions so she could take on the duties of wife/mother/editor/personal assistant/you name it for her husband.
And so it has been, for some 35 years.
Then, early one morning in 1992, the phone rings in their gorgeous Connecticut home, and Joe picks up and Joan runs to listen in on the other line, and they get the news they were hoping for: Joe has been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
This sets off a whirlwind chain of events, starting with a reception at their home, attended by Joe’s colleagues, some of his star students, reporters from prestigious publications such as the New York Times, and the two grown children of Joe and Joan: Susannah (Alix Wilton Regan), who is pregnant and seems happy and apparently has come to terms with the fact that her esteemed father is a serial philanderer who always put work ahead of family, and David (Max Irons), the obligatory Prodigal Son who is always getting into trouble, wants to be a writer (yikes) and is desperate for his father’s approval even as he simmers with resentment.
As Joe basks in the limelight, he always takes great care to thank Joan and say he couldn’t have done it without her — even as Joan keeps telling Joe she doesn’t want to be cast in the role of the long-suffering wife.
Instead of listening, really listening, to Joan, Joe’s reaction is: Why can’t we just enjoy all this? Why can’t you be happier for me?
Joan’s status as the (Not So) Significant Other is magnified in Stockholm, as the Nobel winners are treated like royalty while the spouses are encouraged to take shopping trips and enjoy spa days. Meanwhile, a pesky writer (Christian Slater, oozing oily charm) obsessed with writing Joe’s biography circles in close proximity, waiting for the right moment to gain the trust of at least one family member.
And with each flashback, we learn a little more about the relationship between Joe and Joan, and exactly how and why they arrived where they are now.
Swedish director Bjorn Runge (working from Jane Anderson’s adaptation of a Meg Wolitzer novel) displays a nimble touch for knowing the right moment for a flashback. “The Wife” is visually arresting, but Runge wisely opts for a straightforward approach overall, giving center stage to the dialogue and the actors.
Pryce gives a devilishly effective performance as the undeniably charismatic but astonishingly self-centered Joe Castleman, who has been lying to so many people to such great effect for so long, he seems genuinely stunned when someone tries to call him out on his B.S. (Joe might remind you of certain politicians from both parties.)
Glenn Close is as memorable here as she’s ever been. She shifts emotional gears — sometimes within the span of a minute or less — with beautiful precision. Yes, the story affords opportunities for Close to let loose and hit big, theatrical notes, and she’s a force in those scenes, but she’s at least as effective in the quieter moments.
With six Oscar nominations (three for best actress, three for supporting actress) but no victories, Close is always mentioned in in those “Most Nominations Without a Win” articles.
Close might well receive a seventh Academy Award nomination for “The Wife.” She might “lose” again.
Whether you see Close’s work in this movie today or tomorrow or 20 years from now, whether or not it results in a trophy will be the last thing on your mind.
Sony Pictures Classics presents a film directed by Björn Runge and written by Jane Anderson, based on the book by Meg Wolitzer. Rated R (for language and some sexual content). Running time: 100 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.