The Wife starts out in the home of a novelist who desperately wants to win the Nobel Prize for literature, on the morning he receives a phone call telling him his dream has come true.
Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) hops up and down on his bed like a child, then hosts a self-congratulatory party, where he accepts the well wishes of editors, admirers, and supporters, one of whom is his wife, Joan (Glenn Close), although the look on her face is not entirely one of happiness.
In fact, it seems to contain half-concealed resentment, suggesting something afoot in the marriage.
Our suspicions are confirmed when the couple arrives for the Nobel celebration in Stockholm, where fault lines in the relationship are exposed. Joe is immediately infatuated with the attractive young woman who's assigned to provide a video record of his trip, and via Joan's expression — Close communicates a lot with a look — we are made to understand the chronic nature of Joe's philandering.
Flashbacks further reveal that Joe was an unpublished and unhappily married professor of literature at Smith College when he took up with student Joan, then a promising and aspiring writer herself. These flashbacks, by the way, involve a nifty feat of casting. The young woman (Annie Stark) who plays the younger Joan is a dead ringer for Close, which adds credibility to the device.
Other aspects of The Wife are not so convincing. There is a curious scene, for instance, of Smith coed Joan seeking the counsel of a visiting author (Elizabeth McGovern), an embittered pessimist who advises Joan to abandon her dreams — the all-male world of writers, editors, and critics, she says, is too high a hill to climb (the movie is based on the Meg Wolitzer novel).
Of course, it's 1960 and the world is full of women who've already climbed that hill (the movie later concedes as much), so when Joan does indeed subordinate her life to her husband's, we wonder if there's something deeper at work.
The answer is tied up with the secrets surrounding the Joe-Joan relationship, secrets you'll have no trouble guessing. Clumsily placed clues spoil what is meant to be a big reveal in the closing scenes, the consequence of careless plotting involving the character of a nosy biographer (Christian Slater) and the novelist's resentful son (Max Irons), whose unconcealed loathing of his father becomes a repetitive single note of petulance that drags the movie down.
It's Close who nearly rescues The Wife, grabbing control of it in the crucial final moments, managing to transcend the script to suggest a more complex portrait of Joan, whose life choices form their own narrative, with their own reward.
Directed by Bjorn Runge. With Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Max Irons, Christian Slater, Annie Stark and Elizabeth McGovern. Distributed by Sony PIctures Classics.
Running time: 100 minutes
Parents guide: R (langauge)
Playing at: Area theaters