In Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 classic Wild Strawberries, an aloof professor reexamines the compromises and disappointments of his life while traveling to receive a career-capping honor from his old university. Since then, many movies have reused the road trip-as-psychotherapy trope of Wild Strawberries, including several made by Woody Allen (most notably Stardust Memories and Deconstructing Harry), but rarely have the strawberries been less wild than in The Wife.
Directed by Björn Runge (Happy End) and adapted by Jane Anderson (The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio) from Meg Wolitzer’s novel of the same name, The Wife returns the trope to its native Sweden, as a revered writer (Jonathan Pryce) and his oft-overshadowed wife (Glenn Close) travel to Stockholm to accept his Nobel Prize for Literature. However, the quasi-august The Wife contributes little else to the subgenre besides a master class lead performance and a multitude of credibility-straining plot twists.
Close plays Joan Castleman, the spotlight-avoiding, stereotypically “long-suffering” spouse of Professor Joe Castleman, an archetypal charismatic jerk-novelist who badgers his wife for sex before receiving the call from the Nobel Committee. Joe has all the classic trappings of the “Great American Writer”—a resentful and self-loathing son (Max Irons), a persistent but ethically dubious would-be biographer (Christian Slater), an endless stream of smiling sycophants and a rich history of extramarital affairs.
At first, the longtime married couple ecstatically celebrates his legacy-cementing honor together, but Joan quickly grows tired of her husband’s touchdown dance, and for the rest of the trip, she carries a quiet, emotional aloofness that practically screams, “I’ve got a Big Secret!” If not for the amazing performance by Close, one of the few actresses alive who can turn ambivalence and repression into a barn burner tour de force, the film would undoubtedly fall flat on its face. Pryce does strong work in the showier of the two main roles, but The Wife goes nowhere without Close’s powerful performance.
Rather than the dream worlds and harsh truths of Wild Strawberries, Runge revels in novel-like textures, embedded flashbacks and sneaky misdirects. As Joan watches Joe shamelessly soak in the semi-absurd ceremonies and fawning acclaim in Stockholm, the story jumps back to 1958, when Joan was a writing student in Joe’s class at Smith College (Annie Starke and Harry Lloyd play the young Joan and Joe). A smitten Joan first agrees to become Joe’s babysitter, but their relationship inevitably evolves into romance, until an unexpected ultimatum changes the course of their lives.
It should be noted that there appears to be no reason for the “present-day” action of The Wife to be set in 1992, other than to establish the young Joan of the late 1950s as part of a “pre-feminist” world, thereby making her a gullible patsy. With its leaden symbolism, leaky plot and remarkably convenient resolution, The Wife is often painfully on-the-nose in this manner, but whenever Glenn Close’s piercing gaze comes on the screen, the film becomes a riveting piece of entertainment.