The title of the movie tells us where to look. In “The Wife,” all eyes of the other characters are on Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), a celebrated American writer who basks in the admiration and envy of his peers. At every party, he’s the one everyone is looking at.
Except we know to watch his devoted wife, Joan (Glenn Close), standing quietly off to the side. While Joe is pontificating, it’s Joan who holds our attention. Close conveys volumes of information without saying anything, with a shift in her glance, the twist of her mouth.
At first, it appears Joe and Joan have a complicated but loving partnership. He lives in the world of words, creating great works of fiction. She is his tether to the real world. She takes care of him, wiping the crumbs out of his beard, making sure he takes his pills on time and giving him the space and time he needs to create. When it comes to praising her, Joe’s never at a loss for words.
“The Wife,” based on a novel by Meg Wolitzer, opens on what should be one of the best days of their lives. Joe gets the call that he’s won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and he’s thrilled and grateful. Then we see Joan in the kitchen, listening in on the extension. And her expression seems wrong. She looks shocked, and not in a good way.
As the couple travels to Stockholm for the awards ceremony and Joe is showered with accolades, we see fault lines in the marriage. While their pregnant daughter (Morgane Polanski) seems happy, their son David (Max Irons) is a fledgling writer who clearly resents his father’s success. Nipping at their heels is another writer, the unctuous Nathaniel (Christian Slater at his slippery best), hungry to further his own career by writing a biography of Joe.
Adapted by Jane Anderson and directed by Bjorn Runge, “The Wife” takes its time as it peels back the layers of this long-time relationship to reveal the secrets and the sacrifices at its foundation. Flashbacks to the couple’s beginnings (Joe was Joan’s English teacher in college) help fill in the backstory.
But the focus, properly, is the dance between Close and Pryce, two veteran actors at the peak of their abilities who make the most of rich material. Pryce excels as a man used to being the center of attention, whether at home or in a lecture hall, while showing us the insecurity beneath the bluster. Close does so much with so little until Joan can stay silent no longer, exploding with righteous fury in the last act.
Pryce and Close perform with and for each other, rather than the camera, in ways that go beyond mere chemistry between actors. It’s as if they are working together on a single, unified performance. “The Wife” shows that many longstanding marriages, not just ones involving a famous author, may rely on a little bit of shared fiction to survive.