Behind every good man there’s a Wife

If acting with the eyes is the way to a prize, then Glenn Close is well on the way to awards for her performance as The Wife (cert. 15), adapted by Jane Anderson from Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel. Swedish director Björn Runge sums up the story, set in the 1990s, as “truth as the key to healing”.

From the outset we see Close as Joan Castleman supporting her novelist husband Joe (Jonathan Pryce) as he prepares to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. Literally, she’s his bag carrier, and subject to an assumption that she’ll be interested in going shopping while in Stockholm.

Her rictus smile at some of the adulatory comments Joe gets – or at his compliments to her – masks strains in the relationship. Flashback takes us 40 years to when she was a student in Joe’s classes at college – young Joe is played by Harry Lloyd and young Joan by Annie Starke (Close’s daughter).

His critical approach to her writing doesn’t stop their relationship developing, but they fall out when his manuscript for a novel is rejected. She says she can fix it, but proof-reading and editing seem to be just a start to collaboration.

Journalist Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater) has long wanted to write Joe’s biography, and is following Joe, Joan and their son David (Max Irons) to Sweden. Nathaniel has got an inkling about the extent of Joan’s involvement in Joe’s writing career.

This is not all that’s revealed. Joe has had affairs “and I’ve regretted every one”, and in Stockholm the official photographer Lorraine (Morgane Polanski) catches his eye.

The Stockholm scenes can be a bit odd, maybe because the novel had invented a fictitious Helsinki Prize. That’s encapsulated in a bizarre scene where Joe and Joan are woken up in their hotel bedroom by serenading singers. 

Joe’s relationship with son David is also fraught. David has writing ambitions, but gets faint praise from his father, and Nathaniel’s whisperings cause another rift.

A good part of the story is on the subordination of “the wife”, and more generally it’s a commentary on discrimination. While Joe tells his students (all female, apparently) that a writer “has to write”, successful author Elaine Mozell (Elizabeth McGovern) tells Joan that a writer “has to be read”.

There are other unlikely moments. Joan is seated next to the King of Sweden at a banquet simply to set up a line about her being a “kingmaker”, but it’s at the same banquet that her face gives away years of struggle, when lack of credit becomes not just mentally draining but physically impossible to hide.

There’s quite a bit about Jewishness; one publishing house is explicitly looking for a Jewish writer for their list. There’s also an awful lot of smoking – that may be authentic to the period, but it looks suspiciously like product placement.

It’s one of Pryce’s better roles, worth a psychological study in itself, but it’s Close’s film. At 71, after six Oscar nominations for best actress, she might just get that prize.

Steve Parish