Let’s just get it out of the way now: Glenn Close deserves the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Yes, I just published a post touting all of the reasons advocating for a tie with Lady Gaga, but that was before seeing The Wife and realizing that Close’s performance is far and above every other performance in contention, this season regardless of gender. Even if the film were a critical failure of enormous magnitude, I’m certain Glenn Close would still deliver the kind of astonishing performance that she does here. I’m happy to say that The Wife and its director Björn Runge are deserving of her talents.
Close’s titular character in The Wife is Joan Castleman, spouse to revered novelist Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce). The couple have a modest, but comfortable life that is upended by the news that Joseph has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Joan’s response to Jonathan’s accolade is muted; she appears supportive, but she seems unsettled. The pair, accompanied by their son, travel to Sweden for the award ceremony. As her husband is feted by Stockholm society, Joan is troubled by Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), a biographer looking to tell the truth about Joseph, and her own memories, as she recalls her relationship with him, starting during her time as a student and his as a married professor at college. The truth about Joan and Joseph’s relationship, and the full scope of her support of his so-called career, begins to unravel Joan’s congenial yet detached visage, leading her to openly question the life she’s built and her deeply felt dissatisfaction, in perilously close proximity to the Nobel Prize ceremony.
Joan’s story of an unfulfilled life feels like a direct response to Hollywood’s continued #MeToo reckoning, as more women share stories of how powerful men punished their resistance to sexual harassment by blocking opportunities and successes. The Wife does a great job exploring the complicated nuances of that dynamic, how women internalize patriarchal dominance to their own personal and professional detriment. As told in flashback, Joan’s promising career is effectively ended when a fellow female novelist (Elizabeth McGovern) bitterly informs her that female stories will always be valued less than their male counterparts. The advice comes from an honest place, but it wrecks Joan’s self-esteem, setting her on the path to channeling her talent through her husband’s more palatable image. It isn’t insignificant that she also does so in reaction to her husband’s emotional blackmail (he threatens to leave her after she criticizes his novel), but the film is more interested in unpacking Joan’s motivations for staying in this soul-crushing union, especially as Joseph’s insecurities manifest in adultery.
The problem lies with litigating the Castleman’s marriage through the past; the flashbacks are easily the weakest part of the film, largely because the actors lack the magnetism of their older counterparts. It’s unintentionally ironic to hear younger Joan describe younger Joseph’s novel as wooden when she herself is. The film doesn’t convince us that there is any chemistry to fuel their affair, or any incentive to force its beginning. The flashbacks could’ve offered insight into Joan’s early resentment (or happiness) of Joseph’s success at her expense, setting the stage for the present, but it doesn’t flesh that enough either. Frankly, the flashbacks feel like distractions from the far more compelling scenes with Glenn Close.
Those scenes are where The Wife really shines. In Close, Pryce, and Slater’s hands, the film gets to explore the cruel limitations of female art and the personal toll it takes with much more intrigue. The script has some melodramatic tendencies, with at least three emotional blowouts in the third act, the discussions at the core are compelling enough to make the indulgences worthwhile. Again, much of the credit belongs to the actors in the film’s present storyline. Jonathan Pryce perfectly captures the crippling insecurity beneath Joseph’s bumbling, flustered persona. He gets the most melodramatic beats in the script, but holds a firm grip on Joseph’s humanity so that he doesn’t devolve into caricature. Christian Slater doesn’t do much more than play squirrel to the Castlemans’ nuts, but his scenes with Close bear surprising shades of empathy and sexual tension that could justify a sequel.
And then there is Glenn Close. It’s saying something that, even amongst great performances, she is far and above of them all to the point where The Wife feels like a one-woman show at times. Runge definitely plays into it, frequently framing her at close-center to capture Joan’s reactions to the pomp and circumstance surrounding her. Close leaves no stone unturned, conveying a lifetime’s worth of festering fury, resentment, humiliation, sadness, and condescension whenever the camera is lucky to focus on her. Close charts a spectacular character journey that always hints the impending explosion beneath the polite façade, but still stuns when it finally happens. She is riveting in every scene she’s in and, frankly, every scene she’s not is lesser because of it. This year’s Best Actress race is increasingly difficult to call, but Close losing for this performance would be a travesty.
It’s a shame that The Wife isn’t a larger presence in the awards conversation. Glenn Close is worth the price of a ticket on her own, but the film sparks an interesting conversation about female creativity and the external and internal forces at work to stifle it that is especially resonant for a changing Hollywood. Then again, considering it took Close over a decade to get this film made, maybe Hollywood isn’t ready to truly grapple with all of the Joans the industry has created. At least one of our time’s most celebrated artists is finally getting her due, and hopefully her Oscar.