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Woman behind the Nobel Prize-winner

by David Lamble

Glenn Close (Joan) and Jonathan Pryce (Joe) in director Bjorn Runge's "The Wife." Photo: Sony Pictures Classics
Glenn Close (Joan) and Jonathan Pryce (Joe) in director Bjorn Runge's "The Wife." Photo: Sony Pictures Classics  

In the new Glenn Close dramedy "The Wife," the year is 1993, and Joan Castleman, an approval-starved, dutiful wife, is riding through the streets of Stockholm with her puffed-up novelist hubby Joe (Jonathan Pryce). The couple has arrived in the company of their bitterly estranged, aspiring writer son David (Max Irons). Joe is primed for the happiest day of his career, as he is about to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature (the honor denied the late Philip Roth). But God has other plans. His day will dissolve into a series of humiliations, while his wife will quietly assume her proper role in the family business.

Swedish filmmaker Bjorn Runge ("Mouth to Mouth") uses Meg Wolitzer's novel (screenplay by Jane Anderson) to explore the darker recesses of a supposedly happy 40-year marriage, to question why a talented woman would deny her gifts in favor of a showhorse teacher husband, while hinting at the fraudulence at the heart of the whole dog-and-pony system of award ceremonies, denounced in the past by such worthy recipients as the late George C. Scott.

Christian Slater gets the juicy role of Nathaniel Bone, a gadfly academic who threatens to unmask the couple's secrets unless Joe agrees to sit for a puff-piece bio, a fate that, for Joe, is almost worse than exposure. Bone is more a device than a fully-fleshed-out character, as demonstrated in his scenes with Joan, who steadfastly resists his game.

One of the film's most poignant moments unfolds in the limo ride from the Stockholm airport, where David angrily addresses his increasingly stressed-out dad.

David: "Next time I introduce you, try a little eye contact. And next time, don't introduce me as your son, the half-baked writer."

Joe: "You shouldn't need my approval to write."

Joan: "Everyone needs approval, Joe."

It's right about this time that, trapped in a city where the sun seems never to rise, Joan begins to appreciate just how much she has starved herself of an always-scarce currency. In a flashback scene that's almost too brutally full of the author's message, a younger Joan gets some hard advice about how tough it is for even the most brilliant female writer to get her due, advice from an angry older writer (Elizabeth McGovern).

"Don't believe you can get their approval."

"Whose?"

"The men, the ones who get to decide who gets to be taken seriously."

"A writer has to write."

"A writer has to be read, honey."

"The Wife," ironically arriving in the first wave of "award season" films, states loudly that the business of writing is stacked in favor of male privilege and egos. How this movie fares in the fall Golden Globes/Oscar races should tell us a lot about how timely its message proves to be backstage when the cameras aren't rolling.

Close and Pryce, who seem to have popped out of the head of Zeus as fully formed, adult character actors, here deliver nuanced turns as performers whose own career resumes match the bullet points of these sadly damaged souls. (Opens Friday.)

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