As “The Wife” opens, Joan Castleman (Close) has just settled in for the night with her husband, Joe (Jonathan Pryce), a famous novelist. Around 5 a.m. the following morning, the phone rings, Joe picks up and his life is changed: He’s just won the Nobel Prize in literature.
Director Bjorn Runge stages the moment perfectly, conveying simultaneously the Castlemans’ excitement and the fact that they were expecting it all along. Moments later, Joan and Joe are jumping on the bed like kids, sing-songing, “I won the Nobel.”
Or was that “we?” That’s the question that animates the rest of a film that takes place on the couple’s trip to Sweden, where Joan reflects on her life with Joe, the sublimating of her own literary ambitions to serve his, and an inescapable realization about their relationship that she has repressed but can stay hidden no longer. Like a cat-and-mouse game of egos, expectations and psychological flip-flops, “The Wife” unspools in a series of chance encounters, flashbacks and moments of dawning consciousness that are choreographed with understatement and precision. In one sequence alone — when Joe and Joan are being introduced to their local Stockholm handlers, for example — an entire unspoken code of power and pecking order is expressed simply by who’s standing where.
The mystery of Joe and Joan’s past drives the narrative tension of “The Wife,” and it’s given an added air of authenticity by Close’s real-life daughter, Annie Starke, playing her as a younger woman. Often those flashbacks are prompted by Nathaniel Bone, a pushy would-be biographer who has followed the Castlemans to Sweden and plies Joan with glasses of vodka to learn the truth about the Rothian rock star she’s married to. Portrayed by Christian Slater with a tricky combination of self-interest and genuine concern, Nathaniel is a figure of puckish disruption; the bar scene with Close is one of the film’s finest, as she seems to blush on cue after a maybe-flirtatious come-on.
If the undercurrents with Nathaniel are playful and wary, Joan’s interplay with Joe is even more paradoxical, changing course from outrage to mutual delight in a nanosecond. One of the things “The Wife” gets gratifyingly right is how contradictory emotions can coexist in a marriage that, over time, becomes ever more grooved with joys, disappointments and betrayals big and small.
As crafty as “The Wife” is as it wends its way through its own shifting dynamics, it is through Close’s performance that the story’s emotional arc is made manifest. Whether she’s fending off a nosy writer, politely brushing off a solicitous minder or placating her insecure son (Max Irons) in the film’s least convincing scenes, Joan is a paragon of self-possession and quiet but steely will.
That veneer will ultimately crack, but in Close’s finely calibrated portrayal, the fault lines are just barely visible. The film’s climactic scene features the actress sitting completely still, her face a mask of almost imperceptible anger that gives way to engulfing rage before our eyes, seemingly without Close doing a thing. This is screen acting at its finest. Close has been doing such good work for so long that it’s been easy to take her for granted, before and after “Fatal Attraction.” With “The Wife,” she has been given the perfect platform to declare that, like her character in that film, and like Joan in this one, she will not be ignored.
R. At area theaters. Contains strong language and some sexual material. 100 minutes.