I was somewhat distracted by a nagging voice in my head as I was savoring the sight of Glenn Close slaying it in The Wife as a devoted yet increasingly fed-up spouse of a self-described “narcissistic bastard” of an acclaimed novelist. “How does she not have an Oscar yet,” it kept saying every time she took her modulated slow-burn performance to the next level of perfectly expressed pique. Yes, it is often annoying when a critic makes awards predictions before the season starts. But with six losses under Close’s belt for career-defining and culturally significant roles – making her the living actress with the most nominations without a win – such speculation is hard to resist.
The Wife itself, a dark comedy of secrets and regrets based on a novel by Meg Wolitzer and adapted by Jane Anderson (HBO’s terrific Olive Kitteridge), is somewhat more obvious than its star. Intentions are hinted at from the moment we witness Close’s Joan Castleman jumping on her marital bed along with her author husband Joe when he gets an early- morning call telling him he has just won a Nobel Prize in literature. That is when we learn it is 1992 and the Clinton sex scandal is all the rage as Hillary stands by her man. A trip to Stockholm is in the offing , and as the couple prepares to go, the news triggers flashbacks of a younger Joan in the ‘50s (played by Close’s daughter, Annie Starke) falling for her husband when he was her married-with-newborn writing professor and she was one of his adoring female students. Unlike his other admirers, though, Joan had shown real promise as a scribe with her short story, The Faculty Wife. But instead of pursuing her own career, she didn’t want to get lost in the male-dominated world of literary lions and, instead, raised two children while allowing Joe, who barely hides his constant womanizing, to pursue his dream of being rich and famous.
Of course, there is more to it than that and none-too-subtle hints are strewn along the way of what will be eventually dramatically addressed. But matters first come to a head when they are in the sky on their way to Sweden. That is when Christian Slater’s gossip-mongering hack of a writer cozies up to the captive Castlemans to flatter his way into gaining access so he can write a tell-all about their lives. While Joe dismisses him, Joan suggests that his offer should be given a chance. Once down on the ground, Close and Slater share a well-staged flirtatious scene after they head off to a bar with her smoking a forbidden cigarette and downing vodka. He tries to corner her into confirming what he suspects. She instead replies, “Please don’t paint me as a victim. I’m much more interesting than that.”
Indeed. For its first hour or so, the film directed by Sweden’s Bjorn Runge is engaging enough, with Pryce – who puts vanity aside to fully define his Joe for the self-absorbed jerk that he is — slowly melt down both physically and mentally. But the last half hour of The Wife is fully owned by Close, as she gives the proverbial master class in acting. She says more with her carefully calibrated facial expressions than most actors can do with mere words while allowing Joan to take back what is rightfully hers.