Overrides A Flawed Concept;
Frames Tell A Story.
Behind every king is a queen holding him up, taking care of all the little unseen things that go into building up a kingdom while acting as confidant, lover, support system and all other manners of the power behind the throne. In this case, Glenn Close plays Joan, the woman behind newly-minted Nobel Prize winning author Joseph (played by Jonathan Pryce) and wife of over 40 years. Their time together has brought them close together, but their is a clear undercurrent of tension, the source of which is not made immediately clear. Secrets can run deep in a long term relationship and this one is no different, but what lurks in the shadows may threaten everything they have built in a lifetime together. They both know it’s there, but each works to repress it in different ways and for different reasons.
The direction from Runge is great, getting amazing performances out of the actors while allowing their faces to tell the story. He understands when to use close ups and isn’t afraid to let them linger, watching each tiny variation in the faces of his players to do the heavy lifting of all the subtext, bringing four decades of resentment to the surface, moving with both the speed and fully destructive capabilities of a glacier. What we have here is a subtle, quiet character study, inviting you to dig into the possible reasons these people would have for allowing these wounds to fester for so long, as the ugliness is exposed at the worst possible time. I was very impressed by the framing; often, shots of Joseph with Joan behind him or in the background always still feel like shots of her. We realize she is the one we ought to be watching, but aren’t sure why. Joan in the film is like Joan in her own life: she deserves to have much more light shone upon her, but the decision to be a background character has always been hers. It is the question of “why” that resonated with me the most, even hours after the house lights went up.
The script by Jane Anderson, based on Meg Wolitzer’s novel, is where I took issue. The basic concept is flawed in that the central problem the plot revolves around has clearly been there for many years, but somehow never affected Joseph and Joan’s marriage until now. Yes, the clear catalyst was the major recognition that comes with winning the Nobel, but it is simply too hard to believe that Joan would have lived with this choice for so long, making the main plot feel slightly disingenuous. Additionally, the third act has almost an overdose of drama, as it seems like too many things are happening at once to justify Joan’s sudden awakening after such s long period of dormancy. The acting, however, rises above these nitpicks and sells the story beautifully, giving us a very interesting arc and a conclusion full of wonder and intrigue. Aiding this arc is a well-done series of flashbacks that showcase a lot about the couple and how their foundation is formed and made solid enough to build upon, as well as setting up some timely reveals and one that capped off a great callback to an earlier moment in the film. In a sense, the fact that I had more of a problem with the overall concept as opposed to the actual writing is a biting bit of poetic justice, given the nature of this relationship and what is ultimately unveiled about them.
Glenn Close is superb, a fierce force of nature that keeps everything in, bottling it in concentrated amounts until the time is right to unleash all of the anger, distrust and pain. A climactic scene between her and Pryce is masterful in its execution, and just as satisfying to watch as a more subdued scene in which she shares a drink with Joseph’s would-be biographer Nathaniel, played with all the charm of a snake by Christian Slater. In the latter scene, she tells him not to paint her as a victim, citing that “I am much more interesting than that.” She is right, of course, because she knows what we don’t, even though it is her (fascinating) choice to withhold that knowledge. Pryce plays Joseph with both class and aloofness, giving us the sense that he needs his wife more than he lets on, despite never passing up an opportunity to compliment her in front of company and credit her with his success. He has begun to believe his own hype, and has even convinced himself of what he knows to be false, and one wonders how long it took him to buy into the story that he tells. The couple knows when to put on their literary society masks, talking and acting a certain way, and know when to let their regular humanity shine through in private moments. Close and Pryce expertly reveal thoughts, feelings and a lifetime of secrets slip out in the most fleeting of glances, and being able to appreciate those moments makes this a joy to watch. I may have found some drawbacks within the script, but some amazing acting pulls the finished product itself ahead of the material underneath it.