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Review: The Wife (Bjorn Runge)

Jonathan Pryce and Glenn Close in The Wife

The posh prestige of the literary adaptation doubles down in Bjorn Runge's The Wife, a most literary of adaptations that inevitably stifles itself into middle-brow oblivion in the translation from page to screen. This is the kind of fare that bungs up arthouse schedules for weeks on end as innovative, genuinely independent-minded cinema struggles to book any theatrical distribution - it's fodder for those arthouse's target audiences, those who once attended for the latest European crossover hit, but who now care only to see their privileged selves represented in idealized form on the screen before them.

If that seems harsh, what's harsher is that The Wife hangs on a character better than her film, played by an actor better than all of it combined. Glenn Close plays Joan Castleman, the spouse of celebrated author Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), recently chosen as a Nobel Prize honoree for literature. The couple has secrets, but only she truly harbours them; various factors eke them out of their dormant state as the prizegiving ceremony approaches, and Close is allowed to unleash the full force of her expressive capacities as a performer. It's not quite accurate to describe her work as increasing in depth and detail as the film progresses - Close plays Joan as holding onto all of these same emotions that will eventually pour forth throughout, a glimpse here or there betraying a sense of trauma or turmoil. What makes Joan so interesting, and what Close captures with beguiling precision, is that these secrets never amount to insecurities within herself. Somehow, Joan is content with her burden so long as it remains unprovoked, and content to let it lie even after provoked out into the open.

Meanwhile, a film formed out of little more than a probing examination of the extent of Glenn Close's brilliance twiddles away around her. Pryce's Joseph is developed only as far as needs be, while secondary characters register as little more than perfunctory catalysts for the drama at the film's core. The Wife is thus utterly inert as a work of art aside from what artistry its collaborators are capable of contributing. Runge handles the plot's more hackneyed points with discomfiting earnestness, and displays a tiresome lack of aesthetic awareness in predictable scenes that need a little more impetus than he's able to provide. Even the most transparent of star vehicles require some significant degree of artistic acumen than this - Close and Pryce are practically stranded at its centre, their effectiveness reliant upon the substance of their characters, which is varying, and the quality of their performances. Maybe this is fodder enough for that modern arthouse demographic and its decidedly un-modern tastes, but I can't help but feel - indeed, know that even this audience deserves more, not to mention the genius that is Glenn Close.

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