No one can do a cold stare like Glenn Close. Throughout her new film, The Wife, Close, in a career-defining and Oscar-worthy performance, often sits just outside the film’s focus; usually to the side of her novelist husband Joe Castleman (played with pure academic arrogance and perfection by Jonathan Pryce), aiming for invisibility but with a piercing glare. Is it resentment? Anger? Both?
Directed by Björn Runge, The Wife opens in 1992 in the Connecticut home of Joan (Close) and Joe Castleman (Pryce) as he receives an early morning call that he has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Joe takes the call as Joan run to the extension in the other room. Joe is excited by the news while Joan is quiet, stone-faced. Still, they dance giddily on the bed singing ‘I won the Nobel Prize! I won the Nobel Prize!’ Joe’s agent excitedly tells them that a top magazine is bumping a story about Bill Clinton for a piece on Joe. The parallels of a story of extramarital affairs and a woman who stands with her man are certainly not lost on the viewer.
The two jump on a plane to Stockholm and are immediately pounced upon by sleazy biographer Nathaniel Bone, who’s angling to get the rights to Joe’s life. Christian Slater plays said biographer and boyishly flirts with Joan, hinting that he knows of Joe’s indiscretions but wants her side of the story. She is unfazed. Glenn Close has one of cinema’s greatest faces. With one look she can tell you everything while revealing nothing.
Once in Stockholm, running through the meet and greets, Joe defensively jumps ahead of reporter questions saying, “My wife’s not a writer.” In these moments, Close is fantastic as she quietly seethes and cooks underneath. You know that pot is going to boil over. Watching her marinate in her resentment is a truly rich witches brew.
We’re taken back to the early days of young Joan and Joe (played with wonderful energy by Annie Starks and Harry Lloyd), he has her literature professor and she as his student. They have a flirtatious vibe and when Joe asks if she’s available Saturday night her eyes light up. “We need a babysitter,” Joe says. Joe is married with a new child. She agrees anyway and we meet Joe’s impossibly shrewish wife Sarah. It’s a bit too easy, making it so easy for Joe to want to cheat on her with Joan, and to more or less let Joan off the hook for being a co-ed homewrecker. From that Joan creates a short story, The Faculty Wife, a thinly veiled version of Joe’s wife. Almost immediately Joan’s dreams are squashed, not by Joe, but by an embittered woman writer (played by Downton Abbey‘s Elizabeth McGovern), who insists that the boys club sexism of the 1960s will never allow her to succeed. While this destroys her ambition her passion remains intact. Joan gets a job a reader for a publisher and secretly submits a novel Joe has written but with extensive rewriting by Joan herself.
For a story about writers and writing it unfortunately doesn’t always shy away from clichéd and hackneyed dialogue. Ironically, those exact words come out of young Joan’s mouth in her review of Joe’s first-draft novel. A subplot with Joan and Joe’s struggling writer son David (played by an overacting Max Irons) keeps threatening to take the film off its rails with his too on-the-nose philandering writer short story plot but screenwriter Jane Anderson (Olive Kitteridge) and Runge, working from the novel by Meg Wolitzer, mostly keep the film’s 100 minute running time pace quick and sharp.
While Joe spends the day with his assigned photographer, a very young and very coquettish temptress, Nathaniel corners Joan once again, this time in the hotel lobby and she agrees to meet him for a drink in a café merely for the sake of privacy. Nathaniel presses, not just about Joe’s affairs but the rumors that Joan is actually the writer behind all of Joe’s novels and indeed, the true deserving recipient of the Nobel Prize. “There’s nothing more dangerous than a writer whose feelings have been hurt,” says Joan.
Close builds and builds to the film’s explosive finale and uses all of her strengths from the beginning of her career until now with this performance. You can almost see her go through them like an Oscars montage. I think it’s important to talk about Close’s Oscar chances here just for the mere fact that she stands alone as the most-nominated living actor (male or female) that has yet to win. Six nominations in total – three in lead and three in supporting – that span from her feature film debut in 1982’s The World According to Garp up to her most recent, 2011’s Albert Nobbs.
The 1980s were Close golden age for nominations – 5 of her 6 came in 1983, 1984, 1985, 1988 and 1989. Albert Nobbs had been a long-in-gestation passion project for her but the narrative to finally reward her was not stronger than the generally bad reviews the film got, landing a 57 on Metacritic. To add insult to injury, it was Meryl Streep that beat her, for The Iron Lady, a film with even worse reviews (54 on MC) and running on a narrative of ‘she hasn’t won an Oscar in 29 years!’ Ouch. It’s one of the reasons that Close’s brushes with Oscar aren’t simply an aside; they are a part of her career narrative and almost seem to permeate every moment of this story. If you look at The Wife through the lens of Close seeing six other people win an award, some of which she was competitively in the running for or even outright deserved, the movie takes on a whole new meaning.
One thing’s for sure, this time she’s not going be ignored.
Sony Pictures Classics will release The Wife in theaters on August 17th.