Glenn Close is the power behind the throne in this absorbing study of a complex marriage. She’s Joan, the wife of a feted novelist, Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), who’s soon to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Together with their sulky son David (Max Irons), the American couple fly to Stockholm for a whirlwind of press, functions and rehearsals – but the most telling moments happen when they're alone together in their hotel room.
While Meg Wolitzer’s source novel is written in Joan’s voice, ‘The Wife’ resists narration and allows Joan to internalise her feelings, ranging from affection, concern and duty to bitterness and rage. It’s a smart move: Close’s piercing eyes dart around with telling expressions while Joe blusters on obliviously, enjoying the attention of sycophants. Not much, though, gets past Nathaniel (Christian Slater), a writer planning a biography on Joe. He shadows the couple and waits for his moment to pounce. Slater gives what could have been a stereotypical role plenty of spark, and his scenes with Close are riveting. ‘The Wife’ is also very funny, not least when the Castlemans are woken by a group of traditional singers belting out ‘Santa Lucia’ around their bed.
Less successful are the flashbacks to the couple’s past in the late 50s. The younger Joe (Harry Lloyd) doesn’t seem nearly charismatic enough to sweep Joan (Annie Starke) off her feet. That said, these scenes play an important part in a story with a satisfying sting in its tail, one that makes ‘The Wife’ feel especially relevant today.