The Great Man of Letters is waiting for the call. The wife is waiting with him.
When he gets it, she is on the line to share his glory. When he speaks — to friends, the press — he showers her with accolades and declarations of affection.
He leans on her, she “protects” him, tidies him up, grins through the funny anecdotes she’s heard a thousand times, points to his lip to warn him of the crumb that’s clung to the beard.
Because he’s always eating.
But as the accolades for the novelist, the Nobel laureate, pour in and she makes her dutiful appearances alongside as “The Wife” of Joe Castleman, the patronizing grinds at her, the facade she shows wears on her.
And as “The Wife” is played by Glenn Close, one of the greatest actresses to never win an Oscar, we watch her closely, carefully, waiting for some hint that she’s about to boil a rabbit.
“The Wife” is a lively, chatty and somewhat obvious drama about a woman who stands in the shadows, doing “the decent First Lady” thing, barely letting us see the resentment, the deflating sense of the life not wholly or righteously lived, her potential not realized.
It’s a movie decorated with glittering performances, and not just by its leading lady and leading man.
It’s 1992, and Joe (Jonathan Pryce, alternately dotty and smug) has been waiting for this call from Sweden, expecting it, figuring he’s earned it. And when it comes, he tries not to seem insufferable about it, declaring “It’s about getting up the gumption to write the next book.” But as he’s complaining about the cheap champagne his lawyer “always sends” and wondering, to his agent, if he will warrant “Avedon shots” for the cover story that’ll be done for “The New York Times Sunday Magazine,” you see that he is — insufferable.
But Joan (Close) dotes on him, tries to muzzle his criticism of his “finding his voice” son (Max Irons), a writer just starting out. “I’m not a pronoun, Dad. I’m standing right here.”
She’s a grandmother in waiting, but she’s used to that — waiting.
And when a pushy would-be biographer (Christian Slater, never better) hints that she’s “never gotten enough credit,” and that he’s got a theory that goes even further than that, Joan drifts into flashbacks that show how she and Joe met back in 1958, the changing dynamics of the relationship as he leaves his first wife and child and takes up with a student “with promise…talent.”
Swedish director Björn Runge (“Happy End”), working from a script by Jane Anderson based on the Meg Wolitzer novel, cannot make more of a mystery out of this than it is. But he finds the telling anecdotes in the flashbacks, the guilt young Joan (played by Close’s daughter Annie Starke) feels at falling for her professor and the “moves” her husband still makes on star-struck young women.
He’s always been nuts for for walnuts (the title of his first novel), and he always trots out his never-fails pickup line, quoting Joyce — “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe.”
It worked on her.
To this day, he gushes and bursts into tears about how marrying Joan “was my greatest accomplishment.” But when he lets out, “My wife doesn’t write, thank God. Otherwise I’d suffer from permanent writer’s block,” that rabbit-boiling look bubbles up.
Elizabeth McGovern sparkles as an established, famous writer who advises Joan “Don’t do it,” in those flashbacks. It’s a man’s world — critics, publishers, book-buyers — she insists. It’ll never be your own.
Slater is smarmy, smart and flirtatious as a former student who now stalks them to Sweden, insistent on getting their cooperation on a book he already has a deal to write, but which Joe is hellbent on preventing.
But “The Wife” is at its most darkly, ironically funny when Runge reveals to the world the quaint Swedish rituals of the Nobel — from the solicitous, read-a-flattering-press-release early AM call, to the photographer assigned to shadow The Laureate all throughout his stay (Karin Franz Körloff), to the rehearsals — how to bow to royalty — the competitive cocktail parties with fellow laureates, topped by a costumed choir, led by a young woman dressed as “Santa Lucia,” who burst into their room, candlelit, singing “Santa Lucia” and serving them breakfast.
Did they put Bob Dylan through this? I’d pay to see a movie about that.
And through it all, Close, at her most stoic, lets us see her flee to her “happy place” in her eyes, seeking serenity when all she wants to do is seethe.
It’s a great performance, merely her latest. But heaven forbid they nominate the poor woman again and then hand the Oscar to somebody younger or Streep-ier. We all know the look, the one that says “I will not be IGNORED,” that there’s something on the stove and it isn’t Swedish meatballs.
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexual content
Cast: Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Christina Slater, Alex Wilton Regan, Max Irons, Elizabeth McGovern, Karin Franz Körloff
Credits:Directed by Björn Runge, script by Jane Anderson based on the Meg Wolitzer novel. A Sony Classics release.
Running time: 1:40