Film Review: Great Acting Almost Saves “The Wife”

Film poster: “The Wife”

The Wife (Björn Runge, 2018) 2 out of 4 stars.

Half of The Wife is very good; the other, less so. The part that works is all about performance, in particular that of Annie Starke (We Don’t Belong Here), though most of the other actors shine, as well. The part that doesn’t work is the script, which labors under a self-evident premise that the director then underlines with heavy-handed mise-en-scène. Layered with portent, The Wife gives away its game so many times that the final climax is merely shrill, rather than cathartic.

Based on the eponymous book by Meg Worlitzer (which I haven’t read), the story begins with famous novelist Joe Castleman awaiting a late-night phone call from the Nobel committee in the company of his ostensibly loving wife, Joan. The expected call comes, and presto, Joe is the 1992 laureate in literature. But something is off in Joan’s reaction, the lens pushing in to ensure we see her pursed lips and squinting eyes when Joe yells, “I won the Nobel prize!” What could be wrong? If the answer remains mysterious to you until the end, then chances are you’ll enjoy the film more than I did.

Annie Starke in THE WIFE ©Sony Pictures Classics

Joe is played by Jonathan Pryce (Dough), who brings his usual professionalism to the role, albeit with a little too much effusive bluster. Glenn Close (The Wilde Wedding) plays Joan, and though every glance and gesture is over-accentuated by director Björn Runge’s clumsy camera, she is otherwise solid, moving from highs to lows with finely managed equipoise. Christian Slater (Mr. Robot on USA Network’s Mr. Robot) is quite good as a dogged would-be biographer who follows the Castleman clan to Stockholm, hoping for dirt on the real Joe (his dialogue unfortunately further reminding us of the big secret we’re not supposed to know yet).  But it’s Starke – Close’s real-life daughter – who truly shines as young Joan in the movie’s flashbacks. Radiating vibrant intelligence in every scene, she often appears too smart for the slow-witted screenplay.

I would gladly see Starke take on a juicy lead, going forward, her work heretofore limited to supporting roles. Whatever The Wife‘s many faults, then, I will always be grateful to it for introducing me to her. Still, there’s little excuse for otherwise wasting this much talent. Time for a divorce.

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; a regular film critic here at filmfestivaltoday.com; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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