To think of the acting of Glenn Close is to recall scenery-chewing roles in films like “Fatal Attraction” and “Dangerous Liaisons,” or her Broadway-by-storm turn as Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.”
But to see her work in the new movie “The Wife” is to be reminded how subtle she can be in her characterizations and how rewarding — and maybe even awarding — that style can be.
Subtle in the sense that her character, Joan Castleman, is the stereotypical Perfect Wife, married to the Great Man.
Or so it appears.
In this case, Joan’s husband has just received notice that he is the 1992 winner of the Nobel Prize in literature.
She is the perfect complement to the Great Man, who can’t be bothered with the little things: Don’t eat all those chocolates, you’ll get heartburn; brush your teeth, your breath is bad; it’s time to take your pill.
Joan is the dutiful spouse of a man described as one of the great writers of the 20th century. But at one time, she dreamed that might be her success, as flashbacks show.
It’s bracing to watch her realize her limitations in the late 1950s when her own gift, and fire, for writing is extinguished as a folly — as a woman attempting to succeed in a man’s corner of the world, thinking that someone might take her seriously.
“The Wife” plays with that old adage of “behind every great man stands a great woman” and delivers a gut-punch twist at the same time.
That makes it faithful to author Meg Wolitzer’s novel, being surprising and painful in showing how deep into the shadows one talented woman was pushed.
Close creates a woman who is the bedrock of her family (a daughter who’s about to deliver them a grandchild, a son who aspires to be a writer himself) and who is Joe Castleman’s support system.
She is also our example of what intelligent, talented women like Joan might have achieved over time had her gender not been a roadblock.
Close conjures a different type of energy in the second half of the film as a woman defining how her own story will be told.
To see her range is to witness her rage at her husband’s latest infidelity interrupted by a phone call with news of such sheer joy that it turns her emotions around, with a naturalness that only the great ones can display.
Close has long been one of our finest actors, and this role as a strong woman in a 1990s “man’s world” setting is among her finest hours on film.
As her writer-husband, Jonathan Pryce is nearly her equal in the scenes they share, showing how deeply he loves this woman and how one can only feel pain so deep as when that love, and collaboration, is threatened.
The complicated demands of a marriage and symbiotic relationship is so well portrayed that it overcomes the more cliched elements of the work. Such as the desperate-for-attention son who accompanies his parents to Stockholm for the Nobel ceremony, with actor Max Irons apparently given one direction for this character: sulk throughout.
Or the weasely would-be biographer of the author, played by Christian Slater as a slimy tabloid journalist type.
Or the irony that a story about great writing has such strong dialogue among such weakly conceived scene-setting.
And then there’s the believability of the great twist in the story, which is gradually revealed in flashback scenes of the couple’s early marriage.
But at least this does feature a neat twist of its own: Annie Starke, who is Close’s daughter, makes her film debut in these flashbacks portraying Joan in her 1950s Smith College years and early marriage scenes.
The movie is the kind of domestic drama with a familiar feel that can become something greater through a single special performance.
Close is that one person who makes “The Wife” engaging.