Marital discontent has a long history in print and film. Few subjects are more potent with pathos and poison. “The Wife,” directed by Björn Runge and adapted from a novel by Meg Wolitzer, is an unsparing look at a thirty-year marriage and friendship. From the first second to the last, it is unrelenting.
Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) is an aging writer. One night in the wee hours, he gets a long distance call. It is the Swedish Academy. Castleman has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. A dumbstruck Castleman asks to humbly hold the call while his wife, Joan (Glenn Close) gets on the other line. It is no dream. Castleman is set to receive the most prestigious of prizes.
But all is not as “winning” as it seems.
Gradually, instance by instance, we see that although Joe loves his wife, he is cold and even dismissive, treating Joan with a rote formality. This coolness extends to his bohemian son, David (Max Irons), who has writing aspirations of his own and gets only cursory responses in return.
Castleman is happy to bask in his newfound glory, stuffing himself with the complementary pastries and chocolates at the Swedish hotel, while perusing the library of his famous books. But why can’t he recall the names of his characters? It is the plane trip, certainly the jet lag especially at his age.
Joe goes to the orientation meeting and is appointed with many aides to help him along the awards process. One of them is a young photographer Linnea (Karin Franz Körlof) and what’s the harm with a little flirting?
Meanwhile Joe is increasingly dispassionate with his spouse, only to publicly gush at speeches.
The audience is left to play detective as to how it all happens and this one of the joys of the film. Just what is going on between the couple? Is Castleman losing it or is it a ploy for sympathy? With such resentment why are they married at all?
In between the hissing, there are wonderful moments showing the couple during the 1960s. Young Joan (Annie Maude Starke) and Joe (Harry Lloyd) were literary, sneaky and very in love.
Terrific too is actor Christian Slater who as the obsessive biographer Nathaniel Bone, is neither honest nor unkind. As with all of the characters, their true natures are left to the viewer, very much in the way of an existential tale of suspense.
Glenn Close has never been better and Pryce is a perfect match. “The Wife” belongs in the same company as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Kramer vs. Kramer.” Unlike those excellent films, however, the pushes and pulls of the characters here are blurry and mercurial with plenty of positives and negatives, very much like life.
This is a super-charged and powerful film, not to be missed, and husbands may well avoid the eating of walnuts for months to come.
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