2018, R, 100 min. Directed by Björn Runge. Starring Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Max Irons, Christian Slater.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Sept. 7, 2018
“I’d like to thank my wife.” That’s the standard refrain of so many Great Men standing at podiums delivering acceptance speeches. Joe Castleman (Pryce), newly minted winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, thanks his wife, his “muse” Joan (Close). She can hardly conceal her disgust.
Joe and Joan have had a long and seemingly happy marriage, even with his occasional infidelities and her having to sideline her own writing ambitions to support him. The bulk of the film is set in 1992, when Joe and Joan and their son (Irons) go to Stockholm to pick up the prize. You can tell it’s 1992 because when somebody says “Clinton” they mean Bill; also, smoking in bars is still allowed. More importantly, if you do the math backward from 1992, to when Joe and Joanie first meet – the strait-laced Fifties, in a student-teacher setup that bakes power imbalance and gender expectations into their very foundation – her sacrifices start to make more sense. (The couple is played in flashback by Harry Lloyd and Annie Starke, Close’s daughter.) Indeed, Jane Anderson’s script does a better job selling a plot reveal that was plausible, certainly, but demanded followup questions in Meg Wolitzer’s otherwise very fine (and funny) source novel from 2003.
What is lost in translation from Wolitzer’s novel is her particular vision of Joe – short, Brooklyn-born, Jewish – and her sidelong portrait of midcentury men of letters like Bellow and Roth. The Welsh-born Pryce makes a halfhearted swipe at mimicking an Outer Boroughs accent; he’s better at capturing Joe’s gluttony and overgrown-child sulks. Close – straight-backed, regal, all indulging half-smiles – is playing the adult here, and it’s a masterful performance. Fitting right in with icy Sweden, her Joan is the picture of perfect composure, right up until the moment her adoring husband tenders his thanks. Close unleashes a biblical rage, and it is awesomely entertaining to behold.