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Thread: THE WIFE (Björn Runge 2017)

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    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    THE WIFE (Björn Runge 2017)



    Dark secrets of a literary marriage brought to light in a film showcasing the talents of Glenn Close

    The Wife, directed by Björn Runge from a screenplay by Jane Anderson adapting Meg Wolitzer's novel, is a muted but polished treatment of the familiar theme of a writer whose large ego makes him an asshole. This one may be a good writer, since as the movie begins he wins the Nobel Prize in Literature. Most of the action takes place in Stockholm in 1992 when the laureate in question, Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce, a specialist in posh writer pricks: see his Philip Roth surrogate in Listen Up Philip), comes to be honored, accompanied by his long-suffering but preternaturally composed wife Joan (Glenn Close) and his sullen, underappreciated son David (Max Irons). What happened to the friends Nobel laureates can bring along free of charge? I guess Joe hasn't got any. There are flashbacks to the young Joe (Harry Lloyd), an adept charmer and then already a prof, who woos the young Joan (Annie Starke), then one of his students, and leaves his first wife for her. All this would be just too tastefully routine and predictable, were it not for the performances, primarily Glenn Close's.

    Joe Castleman is showered with praise in America, and then in Stockholm, which he loves to hear. His wife Joan listens with a sweet, tolerant smile. When he tries to have sex with her the night before the Nobel prizes are announced just because he can't sleep she only laughs tolerantly at his gross sex talk. The first undercurrent of Joe's true boorishness comes with David, who's passed on a story he's written that Joan tells David is excellent. Even amid the mellow magic of the Nobel, Joe Castleman can't bring himself to utter a single kind word to his son about his story. Meanwhile Joan ministers to the now absent-minded Joe, who forgets the names of his own characters or when to take his blood pressure meds, but she does not want to be "the wife," or be "thanked" by the successful author.

    Once in Stockholm, Joe overindulges in drink and animal fats against Joan's warnings, and flirts shamelessly with a young, local woman photographer (Karin Franz Korlof) assigned by his publisher to follow him and Joan around, the sort of thing it's clear from Joan's fatigued sigh that she is all too familiar with.

    Also in Stockholm hovering nearby, though emphatically not invited, as we learn on the plane over, is a pesky admirer, Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater, who's good at being annoying: see "Mr. Robot"). Bent on doing a biography of Joe Castleman whether he approves it or not (and he won't), Jonathan makes successful brief overtures to both Joan and David, which, in the loneliness of Stockholm in winter, they don't repel. Privately with Joan, over drinks, while she's taking a break from her tiresome husband, Nathaniel expresses disapproval of Joe's endless dalliances with other women, which he, personally, doesn't think are excusable just because he's a "great writer." At last in their chat Jonathan broadly hints that Joan may be David's ghost writer. We get it: she's a victim of the chauvinism of the Sixties, which led her to give up her own literary ambitions and submerge her greater talent in Joe's lesser one. Even the trailers made this pretty clear. Only later, though, we begin to realize as Joan may that she is partly at fault for having made a wrong choice. Christian Slater's performance has a hard edge (as it does outstandingly in "Mr. Robot") that's the only thing in the film sharp enough to balance the triumphant display of sly repression provided by Close.

    An hour into the movie we belatedly learn from the neglectful scenarist that Joe Castleman is a Jew, and that Joan got him published by working at a publisher that wanted a Jewish author in its stable since "all the other publishers have them." At first hints given in the present-day scenes lead to revelations in the flashbacks. But eventually, it's in the present moments that Glenn Close's endlessly subtle performance slowly, layer after layer, reveals the secrets Joan has been keeping to herself - and partly from herself - that the pressures of Stockholm gradually bring out.

    Though he's worked many years in film, at the moment when director Björn Runge took on this project he was directing a production of Death of a Salesman in Stockholm. This movie feels like a play, and could have been one. Most of it happens indoors, in colorless settings, in Stockholm in winter where night falls at four in the afternoon. The reliance on flashbacks deadens the already mournful quality of the present events in Stockholm, and there's the danger that Harry Lloyd, as the young Joe Castleman, is more appealing than the older version. The scenes are not clearly emotional, but continually discomfiting. It's old fashioned and rather flat, enlivened by its growing secret and Glenn Close's subtlety. She is brilliant at keeping her lines and the plot developments from seeming as obvious as they are.

    The pomp and grandeur of the Nobel Prize ceremony underlines the deep irony of the relationship between lionized husband and creative wife in a fashion that's awfully heavy handed. But with the authority and authenticity of the Swedish production, it sort of works. With all the flashbacks, some of them clearly unnecessary or over-explanatory, it's hard, though, to make the ceremony, with its distant rituals, really climactic. But Glenn Close does it all with her face, in moments that recall her triumph as the Marquise de Merteuil in Stephen Frears' Dangerous Acquaintances, though the latter, of course, is a much better movie and a lot more fun.

    A man winning the Nobel Prize for work he didn't do is an awful thing - but it has been known to happen. Fraudulent achievements are worth talking about. Yet somehow at the end of it, despite its revelations, this movie feels insubstantial.

    The score by Jocelyn Pook is pleasing.

    The Wife debuted at Toronto 2017. A Swedish production with a Swedish director, it's been opening theatrically in various countries around the world since 7 Jun. 2018, and opened in the US, at Angelika and Paris theaters in NYC, showing in Landmark Theaters nationwide, distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, 17 Aug. 2018. Metascore 75%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-19-2018 at 09:32 AM.


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