Edwin Arnaudin: It’s way too early and plenty of intriguing films have yet to debut, but let’s go ahead and speculate: Does Glenn Close’s performance in The Wife stand a decent chance at finally slotting "Academy Award Winner” in front of the revered actress’ name?
Bruce Steele: I'll hope she gets a nomination, but I'd be very surprised if she won for this. Playing Joan, the wife of newly minted Nobel laureate author Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), Close is terrific and bubbling with big feelings: anger, disgust, suspicion, sorrow. But one of the great things about her performance is that it's physically restrained while emotionally explosive. Close communicates so much with her eyes and a steely facial expression, which is not the kind of acting that wins Oscars. Do you disagree?
Edwin: Not in the least. There’s definitely a storm raging beneath Joan’s mannered veneer — a combination that produces only a few moments from which to choose for her seemingly assured Oscar clip. I expect her to rack up her seventh nomination yet stay in good company with the revered group of fellow non-winners, and that’s mostly OK. She’s one of the all-time greats and it’s her best work since at least Albert Nobbs.
Bruce: Yes, since the cross-dressing in Hobbs missed winning the Oscar for Close, I'm guessing she'll have to wait for a character who's blind, terminally ill or based on a historical firebrand. None of those is the case with Joan, who's just trapped in a gilded cage in part of her own making, represented in Swedish director Björn Runge's film as an oppressively opulent Stockholm hotel. As much as I enjoyed watching Close, I was glad for the flashbacks in which 20-something Joan is played by Annie Starke (Close’s real-life daughter), scenes that illuminate the couple's twisty road to Sweden.
Edwin: I was even more thankful to escape self-righteous and smug Joe, so kudos to Pryce for such a thorough portrayal of an egomaniac. His younger self (played by Harry Lloyd, Game of Thrones' Viserys Targaryen) is more tolerable, but ridiculous in ways more appropriate for an ambitious young academic asshat. I enjoyed the balance between the past that weighs so heavily on “present-day” 1992 Joan and how those scenes and theories set forth by Joe’s nettlesome hopeful biographer Nathaniel (a superb Christian Slater) suggest what really might be bothering her.
Bruce: The secret that Nathaniel thinks he has uncovered unlocks both the movie and Joan, spurring her to reexamine her life. Like the 2003 novel by Meg Wolitzer on which it's based, The Wife takes on a lot more than one strained marriage, aspiring to be a deconstruction of the very nature of gender dynamics at the turn of the 21st century — which Wolitzer and screenwriter Jane Anderson (HBO's Olive Kitteridge) don't differentiate much from the sexism of the 1950s, when Joan and Joe were young. It's not specifically a #MeToo movie, having been filmed well before the Weinstein story broke, but it contributes directly to that dialogue.
Edwin: All of which makes me wonder why it was adapted when it was. It’s a curious story to film in that it’s not especially cinematic and may not hold up especially well on repeat viewings — with the likely exception of one revisit to ponder certain actions and reactions through the lens of believing Nathaniel’s discovery to be true. The Wife is a welcome addition to what’s been a pretty lousy late summer release slate, but it’s a bit odd that it took 14 years to make it to the screen.
Bruce: I don't find it odd, since Wolitzer's reputation has grown considerably since she published The Wife, and funding opportunities for women-focused movies may have increased (marginally). And I admire some of the changes made from the novel, which invented a "Helsinski Prize" instead of going full Nobel, as the movie does. The Castleman's son David (Max Irons) also gets a meatier role on film. It's a great "book club" movie and showcases two mature actors at the top of their game, so it may have a longer shelf life than some of this year's pleasant but here-and-gone indies like Leave No Trace and Lean On Pete. For its acting and writing, I'm happy to give it a B-plus.
Edwin: It’s a chamber piece, but a good-looking one that receives an occasional lift from shots of an airplane above the clouds or the snowy streets of Stockholm. Otherwise, I could see it working well with this same cast as a stage play. The subject matter, source material and actors carry greater prestige than the other acclaimed adaptations you mentioned, and while critics appear to be more gaga over those previous releases, I have a feeling that discerning audiences will have a more passionate response to The Wife and lengthen its theatrical stay. I heartily recommend it and second your B-plus.
Grade: B-plus. Rated R. Starts Sept. 14 at Carolina Cinemark and the Fine Arts Theatre
(Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)