Women dominate Toronto this year. Among the exemplary performances we’ve seen in the last 10 days: Frances McDormand in “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri,” Sally Hawkins in “The Shape of Water,” Emma Stone in “Battle of the Sexes,” Jessica Chastain in “Molly’s Game,” Margot Robbie in “I, Tonya,” Saoirse Ronan in “Lady Bird,” Judi Dench in “Victoria and Abdul,” Annette Benning in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” Jennifer Lawrence in “mother!” And yet, for all the well-jusitfied enthusiasm each of those actresses has inspired, another legend might tower above the rest.
Despite being nominated six times, Glenn Close has never won an Oscar. Factor that into the equation as you calculate her chances for her masterful turn in Björn Runge’s The Wife, A late-screened stunner that has taken Toronto by storm. As Joan, the wife of a newly-announced Nobel Prize-winning novelist Joseph (Jonathan Pryce) whose career she has supported while setting her own ambitions aside, Close is magnificent and exudes a hypnotic screen presence.
Runge’s film opens as the couple first receive news that Joseph has won the prize. They jump up and down on the bed like giddy children as he chants “I won the Nobel Prize.” As the significance sinks in and the full implications bear down, Joan abruptly stops celebrating and leaves the room. Things don’t get any better once they arrive in Sweden in preparation for Stockholm ceremony. Joan is clearly deeply annoyed by something and we can only guess what. As more and more troubling details gradually spill forth, we learn more about their lives together and it’s not a pretty picture. Her husband has been self-obsessed partner, an inattentive father and has had a string of affairs over the years — and those deficiencies don’t even scratch the surface. Complicating a tense situation further, a aggressive biographer who’s intent on chronicling Joe’s life (Christian Slater’s best role in years) has stalked them all the way to Stockholm. He knows this couple’s biggest secret and is threatening to expose it.
As fraught with drama as this powder keg of heightened circumstances may be, make no mistake, The Wife is more than an actor’s showcase. The film itself is indisputably superb, a ticking time-bomb of simmering tension which benefits from the audience knowing as little as possible in advance. It’s rare female-driven films that understands women so well, you might guess that it was conceived by a woman — and you’d be right twice. Screenwriter Jane Anderson has adapted the novel
by Meg Wolitzer with magnificent brilliance, with a striking nuance and wealth of subtle shadings that reveal the slow peeling onion of the film’s core mystery. Pryce, in a reprehensibly villainous role, has possibly never been better, but it’s Close who commands the film with a performance for the ages. When Joan is not lacerating her husband with volleys of icy precision she manifests a lifetime of rage and frustration with a silence that speaks volumes on screen.
Unlike Joan, whose life as The Wife was so cruelly overshadowed, Glenn Close has given the world a lifetime of iconic women who never failed to astonish us. She’s fiercely embodied the power of unbridled womanhood over the course of three and half decades of cinematic classics — Reversal of Fortune, Dangerous Liaisons, Fatal Attraction, The Big Chill, Damages and (coming soon) Sunset Boulevard. Yes, she is unquestionably due, and Joan Castleman might just be the role she was born to play.