From pretty much the instant it premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, The Wife has been greeted with a nearly uniform wave of critical praise to the effect that Glenn Close is absolutely fantastic as the wife in question, at or near her career peak. Having now seen the film with my own two eyes, I have two immediate responses:

1) Hell yeah, she is.

2) Anytime that all, and I do mean all of the early praise for a movie is for one lead performance, that is a real bad sign. Lo and behold...

The Wife is a pretty altogether crap movie, the kind of thing that probably exists for lots of reasons involving lots of passions from lots of filmmakers, but mostly feels like it was lab-created to win Oscars in the 1990s, and has only just netted a release. For one thing, it's set in the 1990s, and damned if I can figure out the reason why.* For another, it is about the travails of people whose identities revolve around critical prestige in the world of literary fiction, and I'm sure there are exceptions, but "literature people are sad and angry too" is one of the reddest flags in all of narrative media that what we're about to sit through is lifeless middlebrow mediocrity. At best.

This particular mediocrity involves Joan Castleman (Close), wife of hugely influential and acclaimed novelist Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce). On the morning we meet them, he's nervously awaiting an expected call from a representative of the Nobel Committee, informing him that he's won the Nobel Prize in Literature. So nervous that he laughingly pressures her into sex, setting up what will be the film's major theme (men bullying women to get what they want), but also limply insisting on the film's taboo-busting edge: it might look like a fusty old bit of the drabbest Oscarbait, but we show old people fucking! Fucking with the greatest delicacy and tasteful framing, of course. And by this point, this form of prestige-movie fleshiness is becoming pretty fusty and drab itself, if you ask me.

Anyway, Joe wins the prize, and the couple head out to Sweden with their grim-faced son David (Max Irons) - himself a new writer of ambiguous talent - and for the next several days, while battling jet lag and the chill of a Scandinavian winter, Joan watches as the world treats her husband as the hottest shit that was ever shat. And in so doing, she begins ever so slowly boiling over with resentment, somewaht at how he's domineered their relationship ever since she was his student (the young Joan and Joe are played by Annie Starke - Close's daughter - and Harry Lloyd), and he cheated on his then-wife with her, mostly at how he's loomed over her in all the years since. For at one point, Joan had intentions of being a writer herself, and if the overbearing literary researcher Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater) has it right, she has been writing, except that all of her books have been pasted over with the name of her untalented husband.

There's plenty in there that could be teased out and explored, and The Wife fucks up every bit of it. Between Jane Anderson's flat, over-explanatory screenplay (adapted from Meg Wolitzer's 2003 novel that sounds absolutely superior to this, though I have not read it), Björn Runge's shellacked directing, Pryce's flaming disaster of a performance (as a longstanding Pryce fanboy, this hurts me to my soul), Ulf Brantås's glazed-over, dusky cinematography, and pretty much every other single thing involved in the making of the film that isn't Close or Slater, there's plenty of blame to go around for why this is so lifeless and stilted. As to why it so singularly fails to work as a study of a toxic marriage, I think it has to do with the film's inexplicable desire to play coy about its apparent twist (which is "revealed" at least twice, maybe even three times), which means among other things that Joan is written as an almost impenetrably opaque character, since we need to believe in different scenes that she absolutely and without hesitation adores her husband, or that she has only barely tolerated him for close to three straight decades. A really nimble screenplay, with a director who can subtly guide shifts in mood and editing that makes a structure out of these contrasts, might have been able to make something really insightful out of this complication, observing how people can both love and hate their partners at the same time, how comfortable co-dependence can trump establishing one's own identity in the world, and the like. The Wife has absolutely nothing other than Close, who is doing positively legendary work in reading depths into Joan that are simply not there at all in either the writing or the blocking. She is, quite single-handedly, inventing a character arc out of smudges where you can tell that Runge and Anderson thought they had laid in the groundwork for that arc, but really just poked a stick at some smug clichés we all understand about how rotten the '50s were. This isn't the kind of acting that deserves an Oscar, it deserves a Medal of Honor.

(Even worse is the film's total failure as a story of the process of making literature. The Castleman books, whoever wrote them, are praised using the most non-committal boilerplate about "human insight" and "radical structure", but the filmmakers reveal no accidental hint that they have any idea what those things mean. What we hear of the stories sounds like tedious "emotional misery of upper-middle-class Long Islanders" boilerplate, and the only glimpse we ever see of Joan's creative process compared to Joe's mediocre clomping is that apparently she is better at using adjectives).

Not helping matters is that Close's terrific work is constantly seen in relief against Pryce's shockingly bad turn as a paunchy old New York Jew of the most broadly comic sort. The character mugs constantly, and Pryce's dogged commitment to his accent is alarming at least; it feels like all he knows about  "New York literary types" he learned from Woody Allen films, primarily the early comedies. More than any other single factor (though the glassy-eyed embalming of the visuals in Runge's claustrophobically tasteful directing is a lose second), I think it's Pryce's Joe that really torpedoes any shot The Wife had at telling a real, vivid story about... anything, but certainly not marriage. Joan is not married to man, good or bad or ambiguous. She's married to a cartoon character. That, plus the choking blandness, plus the film's highly functional relationship to dialogue and structure (the way the flashbacks are seeded in infallibly robs the film of any life), strips the humanity right out of it, and instead of a literary character drama with a social conscience, all we've got is a stuffy, dusty relic of middlebrow Oscarbait that could have been made in 90% of its particulars at any point during the last 60 years.




*My best guess is because the backstory does vaguely seem to fit the late '50s better than the early '80s, but only vaguely.