Björn Runge’s The Wife features several claustrophobic and tense scenes that take place in the back of a limousine driving Joan Castleman (Glenn Close) and her novelist husband Joe (Jonathan Pryce) through the snowy streets of Stockholm, where Joe is accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature. In one, Joan says to him, ‘Don’t thank me in your speech, I don’t want to come off as the long-suffering wife.’
Despite her frequent protestations that she is not a victim, Joan’s suffering is very much at the heart of this stunningly acted and visually beautiful work, based on a 2003 novel by American author Meg Wolitzer. That suffering – which is complex and mostly met with stoicism and calmness – is etched across Close’s face for the entire film as she delivers a performance of such depth that it arguably redefines her as an actor.
The Wife opens with the seemingly happy couple at home in Connecticut receiving the news of Joe’s award, an event that triggers receptions and gatherings at home before the pair, along with their son David (Max Irons, son of Jeremy), travel to Sweden for the ceremony. Throughout these formalities, Joan is an affable, sanguine, slightly reserved figure as her husband basks too gleefully in the glow of prestige. She is particularly adept at dealing with the overtures of Joe’s would-be biographer, Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater); indeed, one scene in which Joe is impulsively rude to Bone, while Joan is engaging and polite, illustrates the differences between the Castlemans. These early stages establish Joan, and Close, as the film’s moral centre and its poetic heart – and Joe as a pompous, rather vacant creep. Yet a superb showing from Pryce ensures that he, despite his starkly unattractive conceitedness, is worthy of a modicum of sympathy in his insecurity and inadequacy.