What exactly does it take to produce a profound written work, let alone one worthy of receiving the Nobel prize? Is it the inspiration to conjure a grand, sweeping concept, surely to spark intrigue throughout the world? Having that, does it also require the ability to sculpt that concept into an emotionally resonant beacon of prose?
Björn Runge may not be a name that rings familiar with casual American filmgoers, but the Swede has frequented the industry since the early 80s, creating numerous features, shorts, and TV productions. The director/author understands career longevity without widespread recognition, which undoubtedly played into his capacity to direct The Wife, the director’s English-language debut, an adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel of the same title.
Beginning quietly, tenderly even, we are introduced to Joan (Glenn Close; as good as you’ve heard, if not better) and Joe Castleman (a charmingly wide-eyed Jonathan Pryce), an elderly couple in their twilight years. They await a call in the dead of night, Joan attempting to sleep while Joe anxiously snacks on fatty foods and half-successfully attempts to reinvigorate the romantic side of their relationship. We know immediately that these two people ceased being individuals long ago: they are one entity, inextricable, forever entwined with one another.
That call does eventually come, and it’s from the Nobel Foundation. Joe has been chosen as the recipient for the literature prize, and the couple is warmly invited to Stockholm. Joe and Joan bounce up and down on their creaky bed, as Joe joyously chants “I won the Nobel! I won the Nobel!” Joan humors him, but pulls him down from the bed after a few short moments of celebration. She shares his excitement, if not quite as enthusiastically or kinetically. All appears well on the surface for the most part. They throw a large party, their two adult children return home to visit, Joe entertains the adoring guests, Joan serves them champagne flutes, and they soon depart (with their son David in tow) for the Venice of the North.
What proceeds is a slow creep up a mountain of tragicomic tension, as we’re gradually let on to what’s really occurring here. Why can’t Joe remember the names of his own characters? Why is Joan suspiciously quiet about her own accomplishments? Truths are revealed through flashbacks to the couple’s time at university, Joan as a student and Joe as her professor of literature, mirrored impressively by Annie Starke and Harry Lloyd, respectively. These glimpses into the past offer layers of disquieting context to the slowly burgeoning unease we feel as we watch Joe and Joan together in the present. Runge frames these conversations in brightly lit rooms, allowing the actors to act in close-up shots without too much in the way of extraneous production design or extravagant set pieces.
Aside from flashbacks, the film takes place over the course of the family’s time in Stockholm, primarily focused on the micro-drama between Joe and Joan, as Joan reaches multiple boiling points concerning her role as the ever-supportive, but seldom recognized wife. Close is stoic in her performance, propping her husband up at every turn, managing his medication, ever purposeful and loving, but always seething just below the surface of her soft armor. Pryce plays oblivious wonderfully. David (Max Irons, mopey), a developing writer himself, provides a transgenerational layer to the narrative as he struggles to attain his father’s validation. Rounding out the cast is Nathaniel Bone (an eager Christian Slater, bursting at the seams), who stalks the Castlemans, groveling for the chance to expose Joe’s skeletons in a tell-all biography, all the while pinning the family against each other. It’s a small but effective ensemble.
This is a story about writers first and foremost, and the lengths that their craft (read: obsession, sickness), or lack thereof, takes them; but it’s also about companionship, unconditional love, and having the strength to be your own person despite those other two things. Joan makes a stirring transformation, from a reticent, meekly supportive mouse to a roaring lion, and she becomes an altogether different character from the Joan we observe at the beginning of the film. The Wife may not be the flashiest of films or have the most riveting plot, but the right kind of viewer will find a place in their heart for this understated, moving character piece.