The Wife is such an engrossing experience, and it doesn't have the usual hallmarks of such praise. It doesn't feature dynamic camerawork, though the cinematography is tightly symbolic in moments of emotional weight. It isn't a film built on spectacle, but the lavish eccentricity of its Stockholm setting is as stunning as any. And the plot of The Wife isn't particularly twisty or surprising, but the lead performances are so hypnotic and compelling that one is scarcely going to care. No, The Wife is a stunning bit of character drama that depends so entirely on its performers selling the minute emotional ticks of shielded personas and succeeds beautifully in its execution.
Author Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) is the proud winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, much to the pride of his wife Joan (Glenn Close). The pair travels to Stockholm to accept the award along with their son David (Max Irons), a struggling writer in his own right who desperately seeks his father's approval. But during all the ceremonies and lavish attention delivered unto Joe, Joan starts to struggle with a crisis of conscience as the festivities escalate and a nosy biographer (Christian Slater) begins to question some of the underpinnings of hers and Joe's marriage.
If you were able to glean The Wife's big reveal from that summary, you have a feel for just how half-heartedly the film hides it – as the film even goes so far as to set up flashback sequences that reveal explicit discrepancies in the Castlemans' life stories – but when that secret is unearthed it is done so unceremoniously as to avoid insulting audience intelligence. This is in large part due to a stunningly duplicitous performance by Jonathan Pryce, who frames Joe Castleman as a perfect partner when showing his public face but exhibits calculating, condescending, and emotionally manipulative behavior in private. However, the transition is never so radical as to feel jarring, because his behaviors aren't so much hidden and they are compensated for by charisma and the blindness of his fans' adoration. This constantly shifting sense of mutual respect and patriarchal control calls into question Joe and Joan's relationship dynamic without slipping into reality-breaking theatrics, painting Joe as a complex villain of the piece without him ever realizing that his actions are so obviously narcissistic.
But of course it's the wife herself who steals the show, and Glenn Close is a captivating enigma of a performer, exhibiting a level of calm control that only occasionally cracks as the pressure of Joan and Joe's secrets become the focal point of her emotional disturbance. This is a performance defined by small glances, pauses where truths are left unsaid, and resolute backpedaling should anyone get too close to figuring out her coping mechanisms or the fact that she even has to cope at all. And yet Joan still has an obvious affection and love for Joe that is in many ways inexplicable, probably even to herself, and Close is so good at melding those conflicting emotional states that the appearance of a singularly coherent character is not only retained but entirely authentic.
The film's climax verges to the point of melodrama in a manner that feels a slight disservice to the subdued escalation that led up to it, but on the whole, The Wife is about as pure and enthralling a character drama as one gets. Pryce and Close give some of the best performances seen this year with understated emotion that carries more significance than any single line of dialogue does in the entire runtime. Joe and Joan Castleman feel absolutely real in Pryce's and Close's skins, and that makes the toxicity of their secret lives all the more harrowing, even without the bombast of shouting matches or acknowledgments to one another of their buried shames. The Wife is an intense piece of psychological warfare; you only have to watch the explosions slowly crack the sad smiles that hold them at bay.