All the drama in “The Wife” resides in Glenn Close’s face. Oh, there are multitudes of events surrounding her character, Joan Castleman, the spouse of world-famous novelist Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce). And the face her character turns to the world and to us at first seems a mask of elegant repression — you know something’s going on in there because nothing’s going on.
As the drama proceeds and the surprises begin to tumble out, some far-fetched yet satisfying and others just far-fetched, cracks begin to appear in Joan’s façade, and that’s when “The Wife” starts to get interesting. Close isn’t exactly underrated as an actress, but you could argue that she doesn’t get the attention and praise she’s due in an industry that finds room for only a handful of female stars over 65, most of them Meryl Streep.
The movie, ironically (or not), brings her to the fore in the role of an invisible woman: The Great Man’s Wife. In the opening scene of “The Wife” (after a sex scene that seems designed for maximum audience discomfort), Joe learns he has won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the film, based on Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel, mostly unfolds in and around the ceremonies in Stockholm.
It’s a triumphant crowning moment for an author who, as played with tyrannical gusto by Pryce, mixes elements of Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, and any other postwar literary pugilist you can think of, down to the bantam Brooklyn accent. It’s Joe’s moment, so why does Joan’s smile seem so frozen in place? Is it the bitter memories of his philandering that extend to Joe’s flirtation with the chic young photographer (Karin Franz Körlof) assigned to him?
The couple’s son, David, is along for the trip, a burgeoning writer stuck in an adolescent snit against a father who thinks approval is for sissies. (The role is played, and played nicely, by Max Irons, who may know something about following in the footsteps of famous fathers.) Also snooping around the margins is a would-be biographer (Christian Slater) with a theory or two up his elbow-patched sleeve.
Swedish director Björn Runge (“Happy End”) keeps it moving smoothly, using creamy camerawork and classical string quartets on the soundtrack to try (and fail) to keep a lid on the emotions seething beneath the institutional decorum. He keeps our attention focused on the woman no one’s paying attention to, and Close draws us in by initially just letting the slights bounce off her Cheshire expression. There’s also a marvelous bit where Joe is introduced to a fellow prize winner and their wives silently bond over the fatuousness of important men.
Every so often, “The Wife” sweeps us back to the 1950s and 1960s to look at the couple’s earlier life, and newcomer Annie Starke is quietly impressive as the younger Joan, a writing student swooning over the attention paid her by the handsome college professor (Harry Lloyd) in the unhappy marriage. As the hints and allegations pile up, a viewer begins to wonder if there’s more to this story than “merely” the drama of an unseen woman.
The revelations that eventually tumble forth are surprising and irresistible and a little hard to swallow — they tilt “The Wife” more in the direction of a juicy but melodramatic beach read than you may be expecting, given the politesse of the setup. What unites the film’s two halves — what makes it worth watching, period — is the road Close’s Joan travels as she decides whether to reclaim authorship of her own life. It’s a diamond forged under pressure — a performance of great fury that only finds its voice at the end.
Directed by Björn Runge. Written by Jane Anderson, based on the novel by Meg Wolitzer. Starring Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Max Irons, Christian Slater, Annie Starke. At Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, West Newton. 100 minutes. R (language, some sexual content).