Glenn Close’s master-class performance is enough to recommend ‘The Wife;’ an entertaining (but unnecessary) remake of ‘Papillon’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
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There is a scene about halfway through The Wife when Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), in Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize in Literature, gives feedback to his son, who is also a writer. The son’s story, his dad says, shows promise, but is flawed. The characters are clichés — a distant husband and long-suffering wife. And you can’t help wonder: Do the filmmakers know what they are doing here? The son’s story, clearly, is about his own parents — a fact that is projected early and plays out predictably for the first 70 of the film’s 95 minutes run time. Castelman is a blowhard, the kind of navel-gazing literary lion who expects cocktail parties to slow down as he bloviates with his bon mots. Meanwhile, his wife Joan (Glenn Close) stands patiently, silently behind her husband, allowing him to fill the spotlight she doesn’t want.

Which fuels another cliché: That behind every great man, there is a woman. The title alone spoonfeeds us that motif — why else name a story about a Nobel laureate about his unidentified spouse and not him? Castleman’s son resorts to stereotypes? Physician, heal thyself.

Then, with only 25 minutes left, The Wife takes a remarkable, if not entirely unexpected, turn. The cliches give rise to some of the best damn acting you’ll see all year.

Don’t get me wrong — even before the third act, Close and Pryce are both great, as great actors tend to be. They bring gravitas and humanity to these characters that feel so familiar. But Joan’s persona is that of shrinking violet, the plus-one used to being overshadowed by all the encomiums slathered over her husband. And, for the most part, Close disappears in those scenes. She never pulls focus, as Joan wouldn’t. She’s human wallpaper, demure and implacable, suggesting what’s inside but never showing it to us.

Then she shows it to us.

In her most famous role, as Alex in Fatal Attraction, Close portrayed a different kind of cliché: The woman scorned. “I’m not going to be ignored, Dan,” she menacingly chastises her lover, before boiling a rabbit and attempting murder. Not ignored, indeed. Joan is almost the repressed twin of Alex, the woman who allowed herself to be ignored for too long. (The director, Bjorn L. Runge, even positions the camera at a similar angle, but reverses it, in one of the few visually interesting moments in a bland-looking film.)

And for the next 25 minutes, we are schooled in what acting is about. Suddenly, the many cutaways and closeups from earlier on take on additional meaning… not that there’s any real surprise by what we learn.

Pryce, for his part, nearly matches Close; their pas-de-deux reminds me of the indelible Season 4 finale of The Sopranos where Carmela and Tony have it out. (Edie Falco and James Gandolfini both won Emmys for that episode.) They all but mop up the floor with their castmates — a miscast Christian Slater as a pushy biographer and Max Irons as their brooding son. I wish they were all in a better movie. (Jane Anderson’s script, adapted from Meg Wolitzer’s novel, makes gestures toward some deeper meanings, but feels rushed and diffuse.) Still, it’s easy to recommend The Wife, with the caution that you need to stick with it. As with Joan, the rewards are there, just a long time coming.

My memories of the Steve McQueen version of Papillon are intense but vague. I recall, as a kid, how much my parents liked the film (and let me watch when it aired on network television); I have images of Dustin Hoffman looking ravaged and sweaty; and the final shot, which still seems iconic. I remember the rough plot: Frenchman Henri Charriere, aka Papillon (aka Butterfly), is sentenced to a penal colony that makes Shawshank look like a Key West guesthouse, and never stops trying to escape.

When the 1973 film came out, Charriere’s memoir was a recent bestseller; so the question is, what inspired, 45 years later, a remake?

And the new Papillon — with Charlie Hunnam in McQueen’s role, and Rami Malek in Hoffman’s — is definitely a remake: Not a reinvention, not a reimagining. It is based as much on the 1973 screenplay as the book; the final lines of both films are identical. What has the director, Michael Noer, added to the conversation?

It’s a conundrum I have struggled with as a critic; Papillon is merely the latest in a spate of recent remakes or retellings (some upcoming) that are perfectly fine (I enjoyed this Papillon, now as an adult), even good, but totally unnecessary. It feels more like a sizzle reel for Hunnam, who really is an ideal surrogate for McQueen, though more thoughtful and a better actor. He’s excellent, and Malek — a few months before the performance we all want to see from him, as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody — is a twitchy, weaselly hit. With its moments of psychological torture, its brutal, grim portrayal of incarceration, its message of miscarriages of justice, this film ticks all the boxes of good, old-school movie-making. It’s a throwback, and a good one. I just don’t see why it exists, or who its market is. Where is its relevance to this millennium, its cognates in the modern era, its lessons going forward that resonate with today’s audiences? I didn’t find any.

I suspect it won’t make much of a ripple at the box office (its release date all but signals defeat, coming too late for summer blockbuster status and too early for fall prestige); that’s almost too bad. But is it wrong for me to want more from my movies? In an era where we can stream into our phones practically any entertainment on demand, can’t we ask our creatives to give added value? I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Also opening this week: The Bookshop; Operation Finale; Kin; Searching.