Only 11 Americans have ever won the Nobel Prize in Literature — or 12, if you count T.S. Eliot, who was born in St. Louis but became a subject of the British crown 20 years before winning what is generally considered Western civilization’s highest honor in arts and letters. It’s so remote that most U.S. writers at that echelon likely look no farther than the comparatively score-able Pulitzer. Bob Dylan (2016) is the most recent American literary laureate, with Toni Morrison (1993) the one before that. No one, of any nationality, will win this year. Owing to a #MeToo-type episode involving the husband of one of the committee members, who later resigned, the 2018 prize will be awarded concurrently with 2019’s.
In that void comes The Wife, a taut drama starring Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce as Joan and Joe Castleman, a Connecticut couple whose marital turmoil begins to spill out after Joe receives a telephone call from Stockholm early one morning informing him that he’s won the Nobel. Their troubled adult son David (Max Irons) goes along for the ride — and so does Christian Slater as an oily journalist working hard to get Joe and Joan’s blessing for what will otherwise become an unauthorized biography. (He goes so far as to intrude upon them in first class on their flight to Sweden.)
From the celebratory stateside cocktail party to the occasionally annoying trappings of high-culture regality — care to be awoken by teenagers caroling in Swedish at the foot of your bed? — The Wife adroitly chips away at the glories of literary genius.
For a film about the bestowing of a prestigious award, director Bjorn Runge and screenwriter Jane Anderson adapted Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel of the same name in a way that’s clearly meant to correct a real-life slight. Close, now 71 and one of the most admired actors working today, is an august stage-and-screen performer who also happens to be zero for six on Academy Award nominations. (At the risk of treating her record like a baseball stat or Jeopardy! curio, five of Close’s near-misses came in a six-year period in the 1980s, while the sixth was in 2011, when she lost to Meryl Streep.)
Her tight-lipped performance in The Wife is a good chance to change that. At times demure, at others nearly seething, her Joan has few speeches to deliver, and gets no zingers at all — and there’s nothing approaching the camp spectacle of Close boiling a rabbit or being killed by a falling White House chandelier during a Martian attack. The subtlety is the whole of it. However, the film suffers from a conclusion that gradually becomes so obvious to the viewer — not a twist per se, but in the same neighborhood — that even to acknowledge its existence could potentially ruin the experience of seeing the film. So: No spoilers ahead, but stop reading now if you like to sit in the theater with a spotless mind.
“I love to have a scene where I have no lines,” Close told SF Weekly at the Fairmont Hotel in July, with Runge in the room as well. “We sat around the table, Bjorn and Jane and I, just figuring out her emotional psychological journey.”
“Repressed rage” is the film’s own characterization of Joan, but Runge disputes that Close wanted for opportunities to express it.
She had “a lot of dialogue,” he said. “There are many scenes with Christian Slater — and dialogue, for me, can be music. So it’s not always what they are saying.
“If you go to Ingmar Bergman or Federico Fellini or Woody Allen, there’s a lot of dialogue in those films — but it can also be very cinematic at the same time,” he added. “There’s no contrast in that.”
Being Swedish himself, Runge took no creative license with the depiction of the Nobel ceremony. And Close says King Gustav of Sweden gave his own medals for the actor playing the king to wear. Under all the pomp is the real question of what it’s like to stand in proximity to genius. Joan hands Joe his coat, reminds him to take his pills, and she tolerates his many affairs.
Those liaisons, whether in flashback or not, are written as almost self-conscious indulgences on Joe’s part: I am a famous writer, therefore I will woo these women by reading them the last lines of Joyce’s The Dead. More than satisfaction of the sexual urge, they’re proof that he’s in the company of womanizing “greats” like his fellow Nobel laureate, Hemingway. His wife is the definition of long-suffering, but there’s much more to her.
Joan is “complicit in how their understanding progresses,” Close says. “I think people can fall into things, and especially if it’s somebody with a delicate ego — which he has — then you don’t bring it up. You just settle into this pattern. I think she’s a shy person. She doesn’t care about publicity and recognition, up to the point where I think his behavior is starting to wear a little thin.”
But as the weight of their decades of secrecy mounts like Bernie Madoff’s pyramid scheme, and it becomes clearer that the biographer is circling closer to the truth, it’s Joe who buckles. Close and Runge believe that his suffering is greater.
“Women are used to bucking up their partners,” Close says. “So, in that scene where he says, ‘Do you think it’s been easy?’ I do sympathize with him. I don’t sympathize with his behavior, but they were both in it.”
The Wife is mostly about the tensions between a husband and wife who’ve painted themselves into a corner — but they aren’t George and Martha, openly loathing one another. (According to Runge, Wolitzer took her own parents’ marriage and stuck it in a literary milieu.) As they step into a spotlight that will accord Joe Castleman fame for as long as people read books, we encounter another Nobel laureate from one of the hard sciences. He’s a detestable Brit, introducing the members of his insufferably successful family with competitive brio, and we’re meant to read him as further proof of the phoniness of it all. It’s a brief, brilliant character sketch, although the scene isn’t played for laughs.
“I love that, because our family seems to be so dysfunctional next to all those achieving children,” Close says, ever circumspect about her circumspect character. “They’re the family that writes long Christmas letters: ‘Oh, she just graduated.’ The going on and on.”
The Wife, Rated R. Opens Friday, Aug. 23.