Playing the devoted wife of a celebrated novelist (Jonathan Pryce) and the keeper of his deepest, darkest secret, the actress gives one of the richest, most riveting and complicated performances of her career.
Close is so extraordinary - at once charming and inscrutable, alternately warm and withering, tender but full of contained fury - that she lifts an otherwise ordinary movie; thanks to her, the film’s slightly on-the-nose satire of the literary world and its somewhat familiar portrait of a problematic marriage take on a gnawing urgency.
Directed by Swedish filmmaker Bjorn Runge (Daybreak) and adapted by Jane Anderson from Meg Wolitzer’s novel, The Wife opens in 1992. Joe and Joan Castleman are in their Connecticut home, trying - and failing - to fall asleep.
The reason for their restlessness: Joe has been tipped to win the Nobel Prize in literature and they’re hoping for an early morning call from the committee. The phone rings: Joe has indeed won the Nobel.
At a party to celebrate the news, Joe’s agent informs the Castlemans that a major magazine is “bumping a story about Bill Clinton” to make room for a piece on Joe.
The mention of the Clinton name is hardly incidental. Razor-sharp, disciplined and stoic (she barely flinches at Joe’s affairs), Joan is the dutiful guardian of her husband’s “brand” - and distinctly reminiscent of a certain presidential candidate who struggled to free herself from the shackles of her husband’s stature (and ego).
One can imagine that had she never pursued her own political career, Hillary Clinton might have ended up like Joan Castleman. The filmmakers intersperse the action with flashbacks to 1958, showing us a 20-ish Joan (Annie Starke), where she’s the star pupil in a creative writing class taught by dashing young professor and budding novelist Joe Castleman (Harry Lloyd).
You know how this story goes: Dazzled by her talent and beauty, Joe seduces Joan; they have an affair and he leaves his wife and baby to marry her. Joan abandons her ambitions when she realises that writing, in the 1960s, is basically a male game - and when she senses the threat her own gift poses to the fragile self-esteem of the man she loves.
“My wife’s not a writer - if she were I’d have permanent writer’s block,” Joe tells a group of admirers after learning he’s won the Nobel, as Joan looks on. The comment stings, but Joan appears to have made her peace with the life she’s chosen.
The popularity of Joe’s novels has afforded them material comforts.
They have two grown children, Susannah (Alix Wilton Regan), who’s married and pregnant, and David (Max Irons), an aspiring writer himself - and while Joan isn’t the author she once wanted to be, she’s indispensable to her husband’s success, reminding him to take his pills and wear his glasses, of course, but also coaching him on his manners and counselling him on who, of the hopefuls and hangers-on orbiting them, is worthy of his trust.
In its examination of the marriage between a flawed man and a selfless woman who stifles her own needs and complexities to hold him together, The Wife may remind some of Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years.
That film, however, was distinguished by the director’s artful touch - his ability to tease out the dread and sorrow gradually contaminating a couple’s contentment.