“The Wife” (Sony Pictures Classics), Björn Runge’s movie adaptation of the novel by Meg Wolitzer (“The Interestings”), with a screenplay by award-winning lesbian screenwriter/director Jane Anderson, is a portrait of a partnership in decline.
Even more than that, it is a role worthy of Glenn Close’s talents, the best on-screen work she’s done since playing Patty Hewes in the acclaimed TV series “Damages”. As the titular wife Joan, Close is almost certain to be remembered come Oscar time.
Moving back and forth in time, from 1992 to flashbacks in the late 1950s and early 1960s, “The Wife” begins on a nervous night when celebrated novelist Joe (a scenery devouring Jonathan Pryce) is having difficulty sleeping. He’s eating sweets that are bad for him at 2 a.m. in anticipation of a phone call. He tells Joan that “if this thing doesn’t happen” he doesn’t “want to be around for the sympathy calls”. He wants to “rent a cabin in Maine” and “stare at a fire”.
When the phone does ring early the next morning, it’s good news. The call is from the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden and Joe’s been chosen to receive Nobel Prize in Literature. Joe has Joan get on the extension to share in the announcement. The next shot is of them excitedly jumping up and down on the bed like children.
After a stateside celebration, attended by pregnant daughter Susannah (Alix Wilton Regan) and aspiring writer son David (Max Irons), among others, Joe, Joan and Max head for Stockholm. Also aboard the flight to Sweden is writer Nathaniel (Christian Slater), who desperately wants to be Joe’s biographer. Joe, a suede elbow patch writer, isn’t happy to see Max and doesn’t hesitate to make his feelings known. Once in Stockholm, the cracks in Joe’s life begin to show. He is extremely anxious. He is relentlessly cruel to David. He is an unrepentant flirt and latches on to photographer Linnea (Karin Franz Körlof ).
In the first of the movie’s flashbacks, we go back to Smith College in 1958 where young Joe (Harry Lloyd) is a writing instructor and the even younger Joan (Annie Stark) is one of his students. He makes his female students swoon, he cracks walnuts in his bare hands, and he quotes Joyce. In a meeting with Joan in his office, Joe compliments her short story “30 Years”. There appears to be sexual tension. She thinks he’s going to ask her on a Saturday night date, but instead asks her to babysit for his baby daughter. When she arrives, she can see that his marriage is on shaky ground.
Back to Stockholm, as the day of the Nobel ceremony approaches, tensions increase. Joe and David are at each other’s throats. Joan the peacekeeper tries to keep things in order. But she has her own issues and she asks Joe not to thank her in his acceptance speech because she wants to avoid sounding like “the long-suffering wife”. Joe worries people will think he’s a “narcissistic bastard” if he doesn’t. She sets him straight by saying, “but you are!”
In 1958, Joe finally kisses Joan in his office. He takes her to a reading by faculty member and author Elaine (Elizabeth McGovern), who has discouraging words for Joan about being a woman writer in a man’s world.
When Joan wakes up and discovers that Joe’s not in bed in their Stockholm hotel room, she finds him in the hotel dining room with Linnea. Joan decides not accompany Joe to the Nobel ceremony rehearsal. Instead, she plans to go off on her own on a tour. But before she has a chance to leave the hotel, Nathaniel talks her into going for a drink with him. He reveals that he’s been contracted to write a tell-all about Joe, including his various “indiscretions”. After a few drinks and cigarettes, Joan tells Nathaniel she doesn’t want to be painted as a victim. She talks about giving up writing to be a wife and mother. Joan doesn’t trust Nathaniel and makes it clear that if he’s “trolling for nuggets of bitterness” he won’t find any.
Nevertheless, Joe and Joan’s relationship is at the breaking point. She finds evidence of his flirtation with Linnea. In spite of a phone call from Susannah about the birth of their grandchild, it’s obvious that things are beyond repair.
In one of the last flashbacks, Joan is working at a publishing house in New York in 1960. Joan overhears her boss say the press needs one of those Jewish writers that are so popular at that time and she suggests that he considers Joe. After leveling harsh criticism at Joe for the first draft of his novel “The Walnut”, Joan “fixes” (read: rewrites) it for him and it is accepted for publication. Little does Joan realize that she is setting a precedent.
All of this is just elaborate setup for what is to come. Ultimately, “The Wife”, a movie about a novelist (or two), is actually about the various fictions that make up a life, a marriage and a career. Close is magnificent and in scenes that take place at the ceremony, the banquet and the final confrontation in the hotel room, she pulls out all the stops and gives the performance of her career. So much so that it makes it worthwhile to sit through Pryce’s histrionic performance and Runge’s leaden direction just to watch her.