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13 Sep 2018

Performances With Power: Amazing Acting Makes 'The Wife' a Fine Film—but It Would Have Been Better on a Stage

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Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce in The Wife. Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce in The Wife.

The Wife is one of those movies that strikes me as something that would’ve worked better as a play.

I enjoyed it on some levels, and some of the performances are quite good, especially Glenn Close as the title character. However, other performances feel like they are being played for an audience on a stage rather than on camera. I’ve read that members of the cast rehearsed for weeks before cameras rolled, and The Wife displays evidence that sometimes you can be a little too polished—and come off as too melodramatic for a movie. That melodrama could play well in an Off Broadway play, but for a movie like this? It’s a little too forced.

Close plays Joan Castleman, wife of the newly christened Nobel Prize for Literature winner Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce or, as I like to call him, Sam Lowry). The first hint of the golden work Close will do in this movie comes during an early moment when she picks up a phone to listen in as her husband is informed of his prize. Close does an expression that’s straight out of a master class in how to act with your face for a camera. It’s breathtaking.

As the movie starts to play out, one character in particular sticks out like a sore thumb: David, their son, played by Max Irons (son of Jeremy). This is not to say Irons delivers a bad performance; it’s just the wrong performance. There are moments when he comes off as too petulant and overacting. There are moments when he comes off as quite brilliant. I was able to accept his performance by pretending he was doing it somewhere in Manhattan for a live audience; it just worked better for me that way. Unfortunately, we are not supposed to play those sorts of mental games when watching a movie. The movie needs to flow as a cohesive piece, and Irons sometimes takes you right out of the film.

Close’s daughter, Annie Starke, plays a younger version of Close’s character; they both kill it in every scene, so much so that you have to dismiss the bad stuff and enjoy the greatness you are seeing. The two actresses help sell a story that is more symbolic than anything, an age-old tale about repression and insincerity. It’s been told before—this movie shares some DNA with Barton Fink—and it’s been told in better overall before, but Close and Starke make it quite electric at times.

Pryce is equally good as the alternately polite and selfish author with major personality flaws that make him a lousy husband and father. Credit goes to this gifted actor for making Joe a total ass, yet somebody you can’t help but feel a little sorry for.

As an investigative author hounding the Castlemans, the one and only Christian Slater makes his best cinematic impression in many years. His role is as clichéd as a role can get, but he makes Nathaniel Bone compellingly persuasive and nasty.

There are some great cinematic moments constructed by director Björn Runge that put The Wife over the top. One of the final shots of Close, with the Stockholm snow outside the window behind her, is a stunner. Her final shot … well, it’s a keeper for sure.

Moments like those help to sort of cancel out the moments that are stagey or a bit too farfetched. The Wife is very much worth seeing for Close, Pryce and Starke. They make you wish they’d take this story to the stage, where it probably belongs.

The Wife is now playing at Mary Pickford Is D’Place (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City; 760-328-7100) and the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033).

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