The Wife review: Glenn Close drama simply doesn't ring true

Dir: Bjorn Runge; Starring Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Alix Wilton Regan, Max Irons, Christian Slater, Elizabeth McGovern. Cert 15, 100 mins

The Wife demands a giant leap of faith from its audience. We have to believe that Glenn Close’s character, the endlessly put-upon spouse, is prepared to sublimate her ambitions and urges and to defer at all times to her husband. Given that Close is one of Hollywood’s most formidable divas, it is hard to accept that she is going to pick up any man’s socks and underwear, let alone one as pleased with himself as the Philip Roth-like novelist Jonathan Pryce plays here.

As the film opens in Connecticut in 1992, Joe Castleman (Pryce) and Joan (Close) are in bed, waiting for a phone call. Joe can’t sleep and so demands sex. Joan complies. When the phone finally does ring, Joe gets the news he has been waiting for – he has indeed won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The couple bounce on the bed in delight. He is the happiest of men and she gives every appearance of sharing in his joy.

Adapted from Meg Wolitzer’s novel, The Wife is brilliantly acted by its two leads but is never remotely credible. Swedish director Björn Runge (working from a screenplay by Jane Anderson) includes many shots of Joe speaking to journalists, making speeches and generally holding forth. In these scenes, Runge will tilt the camera sideways so we catch a quick glimpse of Joan in close up. Her expression may seem neutral but we know immediately that she sees through her husband. “Without this woman, I am nothing,” Joe pompously pronounces at one stage, as if it is a blandishment expected of him. (Every Nobel laureate has to thank his or her family.) We know just by looking at Close’s Joan that his words are completely accurate.

Early on, The Wife offers a dryly funny portrait of a married couple who’ve been together for a small eternity. Like a more literary version of George and Mildred in the old British sitcom, they know every wrinkle of each other’s personalities. Joan’s eyes will glaze over when Joe starts reciting the same lines from James Joyce to impress someone or writes on a walnut to charm a younger woman he fancies. Nothing he does can surprise her. While the Swedish Nobel committee fawn over him and hang on his every utterance, she sees a man who needs to brush his teeth. “Your breath is bad,” she tells him. She will spot if he has food on his lip and will warn him if he is speaking out of turn or being rude.

A side pleasure of the film is its very detailed depiction of what it is like to win a Nobel Prize. As a Swede, director Runge appears to know this part of his story inside out. Laureates and members of their family are flown to Stockholm, waited on by bumbling dignitaries and taught how and when to bow to the king. They’re waited on at all times and are even serenaded when they have breakfast in bed.

Gradually, the comedy of (marital) manners gives way to something far darker. In a cleverly judged performance, Christian Slater is unctuous, creepy and vaguely threatening as Nathaniel Bone, the opportunistic journalist hoping to write Joe Castleman’s biography. Joe is contemptuous and hostile towards Bone but, true to his surname, the journalist is dogged in pursuit of his subject.

Close plays Joan in a deliberately enigmatic fashion. She is about to become a grandmother. She dotes on her children and believes her son David (Max Irons) has literary talent. The success of Castleman’s books has bought her a life of privilege and affluence. When strangers ask: “Do you have an occupation?” she appears to brush the question aside. It becomes apparent, though, that she is neither as placid nor as content as her behaviour in public suggests.

Throughout the film, short flashbacks show Joe and Joan as a much younger couple, meeting for the first time in the 1950s when he is a professor, and she is a student working as a babysitter for him and his then wife. These scenes reveal that Joan was a talented author in her own right, revelations which make it all the more perplexing she has sacrificed her own ambitions for those of her husband. One of the most powerful and startling scenes in the film shows her as a younger woman (played by Annie Starke) listening to a talk by the Mary McCarthy-like novelist, Elaine Mozell (Elizabeth McGovern). She asks Mozell for advice and is startled by the aggressive cynicism and despair of the novelist’s response. Mozell warns her that all the agents, publishers and magazine editors are men. None of them take women’s writing seriously. When women manage to get their novels published, they will sell 1000 copies at best. To demonstrate her point, Mozell picks one of her own books off the library shelf. The sharp crack on the spine we hear on the soundtrack as she opens it indicates no one else has opened it before.

The Wife is a timely release at a moment when abusive male behaviour is under such scrutiny. Pryce’s novelist isn’t above using his status to exact sexual favours. Joan puts up with his “various indiscretions” for the same reason she puts up with a publishing system so tilted against her – namely that she doesn’t have any choice. She is left to sweat in what her husband calls a great “stew of resentment” and pretend she is content.

For all the skill of the storytelling and the magnificence of Close, whose Joan seems like an oppressed housewife one moment and a raging Clytemnestra the next, The Wife simply doesn’t ring true. It defies credibility that such a strong-willed figure (especially one played by an actress with the voltage of Close) would ever accept second best as meekly as the film implies.

The Wife is in cinemas 28 September