The Wife **

You'll want a divorce from this pedestrian adaptation of Meg Wolitzer's best-seller that missteps by nixing its protagonist's thorny inner monologue in favor of cinema-of-quality mediocrity. Jonathan Pryce and a likely Oscar-bound Glenn Close valiantly fight a losing battle as a high-profile couple in crisis.

Is it worth $10? No

Joan Castleman, the titular character in “The Wife,” is really good at what she does. But then again, being married to a well-renowned man of letters has its own set of expectations. Expectations she fulfills with clockwork precision. The Connecticut resident makes sure her husband Joseph is ready to conquer the world on a daily basis, whether it's dealing with a pesky editor or, as the movie opens, reluctantly agreeing to lie still in bed while he, um, releases some tension.

But the tension in this case is understandable. Joseph (Jonathan Pryce), you see, has been shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and what kicks the story into gear is that anticipated phone call from Sweden telling the author he's been selected for the prestigious honor. The year is 1992, a time before cell phones became an essential accessory. Director Björn Runge lingers on Joan (Glenn Close) as she listens in on the other line. On the surface, the couple appears harmonious and loving, as the dutiful wife helps dear hubby bask in the glow of the game-changing news.

The cracks in the marriage, however, start becoming more apparent at a get-together with family and friends to celebrate the man of the hour. Their son David (Max Irons), a budding author in his own right who's just had a short story published, desperately wants feedback from his dad, but you can tell the older man is stalling to soften the blow his criticism will likely have. But what about Joan? She's essentially reduced to wait staff at her own soirée. A hint of bitterness registers almost imperceptibly on her face as loved ones surround Joseph to suck up to h-, er, congratulate him,

Trouble rears its unwelcome head during the plane ride to Sweden, in the form of dogged newshound Nathaniel Boone (a well cast Christian Slater), who's been given the green light to write a Castleman biography but has been unable to score a one-on-one with the acclaimed novelist. Joseph sees him as a pest he's all content to swat away, but Joan regards the journalist with guarded affection. She's smart enough to know the couple can't afford to alienate someone with the potential to disclose potentially damaging information, even a sweet talker like Boone.

The seeds are thus sown for a pressure-cooker showdown between husband and wife in this adaptation of Meg Wolitzer's slim but potent best-seller. The production values are top-notch across the board, the attention to detail regarding the Nobel Prizes' pageantry consistently captivating. Close and Pryce tear into their roles with nuance and fearlessness. But just when it's ready to bare its fangs, “The Wife” flounders. Tasteful to a fault, the film seems designed to appeal to the NPR crowd, taking pains not to make its target audience uncomfortable.

And that just feels wrong. Let's begin with screenwriter Jane Anderson's decision to jettison Joan's first-person inner monologue in favor of an omniscient-narrator approach. On paper, it's a sound decision. After all, who wants to hear an endless voiceover when you can more effectively convey the character's anguish visually? In this case, though, depriving Joan of her voice takes the source material's urgency out of the equation. It leeches the opinionated piquancy of Wolitzer's prose in favor of bland Europudding trappings. Crisp camerawork and elegant production design allow viewers to immerse themselves in this insular world, and yet, we're not quite able to get into the characters' heads.


Adding to the overall pedestrian feel of “The Wife” are flashback sequences that show Joseph and Joan's younger selves, when he was her writing teacher at Smith College in the late 1950s. Kudos to casting agents Elaine Grainger and Susanne Scheel for finding, in Harry Lloyd and Annie Starke (Close's real-life daughter), ideal incarnations of the couple. But Runge and Anderson lay on the glass-ceiling tension too thick. Joseph clearly saw natural talent in his student, as well as a target for his abundant libido. Meanwhile, no one appears to take Joan's genuine intention to pursue a writing career, seriously, including the man who would become her husband. In case viewers missed the point, Anderson spells it out in a scene where disenchanted author Elaine Mozell (Elizabeth McGovern, struggling with a distracting accent) tells young Joan to quit while she's ahead, insisting there's nothing but frustration and disappointment in store as a female writer in a male-dominated industry.

The flashbacks are meant to shed light on the shaky foundation of the Castlemans' marriage, but they just make the film more ordinary, even when it zeroes in on a juicy plot twist that, alas, is inelegantly telegraphed way too early. It ends up coming across as a higher-profile variation on the kind of adult drama you routinely find relegated to streaming platforms. Runge aims for “Scenes from a Marriage” in miniature but ends up with second-rate Henrik Ibsen, a middlebrow “A Doll's House” designed to impress Oscar voters on its way to becoming a trivia question for award season junkies. Like Mr. Castleman himself, it's more than a little full of itself, and it lacks a payoff that would have justified Runge's cinema-of-quality airs.

What ultimately does “The Wife” in is that it never quite nails the book's balance of high drama and literary world satire. The film is never less than engaging when Close and Pryce grapple with decades' worth of pent-up resentment, but it undercuts the ferocity of these scenes before the actors are able to draw blood. A movie about marital discord, especially one with a commited Glenn Close performance at its center, has no business being this tame. It lets the multiple Oscar nominee down, and us as well.

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