(Directed by Björn Runge) (2018)
The Nobel Committee stuffs-up again? That’s no surprise – ask Rosalind Franklin! But we doubt the entire world of readers, writers, publishers and critics could be so dumb as to believe Joan Castleman (Glenn Close), married to faux Jewish intellectual Joe (played by Jonathan Pryce as a cross between John Cheever and Howard Jacobson), had nothing to do with his sensitive, deliberately-paced, richly-textured, (almost feminine!) body of work, for which he gets to go to Stockholm and get a medallion handed him by a team of flaxen-haired cheerleaders. This #me-too melodrama is based on the Meg Wolitzer novel, and its big reveal (yes, thanks to renovation-reality shows, “reveal” is now a noun) is an awfully long time coming, and doesn’t pack much of a punch.
What saves the film are a couple of performances, and what almost sinks it are a few other performances. The worst first: the two actors portraying Joan and Joe in their salad days are not up-to the dramatic demands made on them, and as a result, their blossoming romance and strategic deception fully fail to convince: when Joan rejects Joe’s draft novel, her critique awash with cliches, and he rages and wallows in self-pity, the viewer is compelled to conclude that these are not writers talking. (A similar scene in Funny Farm has more emotional and literary resonance). Overall, the flashbacks are artificial, lumpy and ponderous.
Then there’s Joe’s mopey son, mommy’s boy David (Max Irons), who rolls his eyes and spits his dummy when in Dad’s company, Joe yelling at him constantly while explaining to others that sonny is finding his own voice – it’s like a bastardisation of The Jazz Singer! If we have to watch a Close and an Irons, we’ll take Reversal of Fortune thanks.
Pryce plays the puerile, whining egoist on the make quite well, but the script can’t decide whether he’s genuinely deluded (or demented) or simply guilty, and engaged in guilt transference. A stand-out is Christian Slater as the insinuating, slightly damaged, wannabe biographer, who suspects the truth. And we saved the best for last: Close takes the meandering, wafer-thin script and uses it to unravel the character while the character is herself unraveling. From devoted factotum to staunch muse; from coldly insouciant companion to smouldering sphinx, Joan reaches a white hot catharsis in spectacular fashion, and it is gripping to watch. The wife makes The Wife fun, and worth watching.