Some of cinema’s greatest works have relied on the close-up of a woman’s face in order to confront the audience with the ambiguities that only the human face can hold. And the expressions on those faces often come in response to the rarely reasonable demands of men. It’s in the sight of Maria Falconetti’s Joan of Arc pleading for her life before the male jurists in The Passion of Joan of Arc; the crumbling visage of Liv Ullman’s Marianne in Scenes from a Marriage, dumbfounded by the avowal of her husband’s betrayal and imminent departure; and in Greta Garbo’s lovestruck and totem-like countenance in Queen Christina. Not for nothing did Roland Barthes famously describe Garbo’s eyes as “two tremulous wounds.”
In The Wife, it’s Glenn Close’s face, simmering with a storm of contradictions, that haunts the viewer from beginning to end. Though Björn Runge’s film could hardly be described as great cinema, Close’s perennial look of astonishment and resilience borrows from the misery of the aforementioned women of cinema, and of feminine despair writ large. It commands the action to the point of turning every other screen element into a gratuitous prop.
Close plays Joan, the wife of world-renowned writer Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), who’s about to get the Nobel Prize for literature. From the start, Joan seems paralyzed by the realization that she has wasted her life devoting herself to a man incapable of even the most momentary act of selflessness. Close’s eyes, too, are two tremulous wounds, twitching with wrath and mourning, newfound anger, and an all-too-familiar tendency for acquiescence.
As Joan and Joe head to Sweden with their son, David (Max Irons), to accept the Nobel Prize, the viewer learns that it’s Joan who should be getting the award, not Joe. The confrontation of this injustice could and should have been sufficient dramatic focus here: the settling of accounts of a man and a woman in an insipid hotel room in Stockholm as the unevenness of their domestic deal emerges. But Runge, whose film is based on the 2003 novel of the same name by Meg Wolitzer, adds several unnecessary subplots that ultimately dilute the gravitas that Close brings to this project, including one in which an insistent biographer, Nathaniel (Christian Slater), tries to pit the Castlemans against one another so that he can get juicy tidbits for an unauthorized book on Joe, and another in which the childish David nags his father to give him feedback on a short story that David wrote.
Close’s stare, whenever we’re allowed a few seconds to bask in it, keeps reminding us of the triteness behind the film’s attempts at concocting a traditional narrative—one with villains, flashbacks, and drinks spilt on fancy gowns. When Close isn’t in the frame to subtly distill Joan’s pent-up emotions, The Wife beats us over the head with a morality tale of women not standing a chance in the workplace. This is particularly true in a flashback scene where the young Joan (Annie Starke) meets a cartoonishly bitter female author who tells her she shouldn’t write because she’ll never get men’s attention and her books will end up, at best, in the alumni shelf of some university bookstore, never to be read. Though there may be truth in that message, it’s one that already lives in Close’s face in less literal ways. As such, pairing an actress of Close’s caliber with such banal material makes everything that isn’t articulated by Close herself feel like soap-operatic redundancy.