For the modern double feature to truly work, films need hooks, some element that breaks the surface, sinking into the dark psyches of audiences. We must feel the gravitational allure of say, a performer exerting the maximum force of their presence and personality in some profound way. Such feats matter far more than visual pyrotechnics and even narrative trickery.
It is easy to waltz into writer-director Isabel Coixet’s The Bookshop – especially an old soul book lover whose second home happens to be a darkened movie house – and succumb to the sway of the delicious tartness of Patricia Clarkson as the catty queen of a small English town in 1959, a staunchly conservative community where everyone knows everyone’s secrets and lies. We might hate the facts of life in this place, but we can certainly appreciate how easy it is to slip into the lazy river and surrender to the familiar flow.
So when Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), the widow with a sharp eye and bookish sensibilities, decides to open a bookstore in a location all-but-set to house a community theatre answering to Clarkson’s grand dame, there’s no surprise in the inevitable showdown. That Green receives support and dry romantic affection from the communal recluse (Bill Nighy) who eagerly embraces the hand-picked titles Green curates for him is as by-the-books as this genre can get, but what saves it from being merely a sleepy soap opera is the lived-in depth that Clarkson and Nighy provide.
This adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel turns into a dog-eared dime store paperback on a twirling metal rack, the kind of story folks might pick up and flip through, but never buy (or more importantly, buy into). What’s missing is a sense of these characters ever developing into people stepping off the pages. Mortimer’s Green is paper-thin and the actress is left out in a weepy downpour with no protection. Her best efforts come when she’s given the chance to lean into challenging moments, displaying a hard-won fearlessness. Here, Mortimer gets soaked through and through, with no hope for a glimmer of sunlight to dry and heat things up.
Watching the scenes play out, I couldn’t help but wonder why some indie producer couldn’t cook up a concoction featuring Clarkson and Nighy as a quirky couple, bitter rivals who banter and bicker their way past each other’s formidable defenses like one of the black and white classics. We never get to see and feel the kind of love that these two could create onscreen with little more than a coffeehouse backdrop and a whirling, swirling spell of words and arch tones.
I know there’s an audience out there that would swoon over such an opportunity because that’s what unfolds in The Wife, except instead of Clarkson and Nighy, we get Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce in the lead roles. Swedish director Björn Runge and writer Jane Anderson capture the slow-burn intensity of Meg Wolitzer’s prose, the simmering anger without allowing the sentiments to merely become political talking points in an age-old debate. Love has calcified into duty in this marriage between a noted writer (Pryce) and his long-suffering wife (Close), but as he receives a call from Stockholm announcing his admittance into that tight circle of Nobel Prize winners for Literature, a series of fissures appear.
Close is the real marvel, operating as not only the engine driving the career of her character’s husband, but also as the indomitable force propelling the narrative forward. She is Everywoman who covered up her own bright light, so that her husband’s shadow could do its feeble job. She has watched him step out on her and ghostwritten his careless and sexless episodes of the deeds, while staying above it all, accepting his vocal appreciation, offered at every turn, as the feint praise it truly is.
This, the film reminds us, was a woman’s work, but what happens when that time is, literally, up?
Truth be told, The Wife is a one-woman show. I remember the buzz that emerged when the film screened at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. It was one of the titles that slipped through my schedule, but I eagerly awaited the opportunity to settle in with it, as soon as some studio snatched it up. Close, everyone assumed, was a lock for a Best Actress nomination and with a career like hers (six Academy Award nominations, dating back to her first for Supporting Actress in The World According to Garp back in 1983, despite the fact that no one could ever forget her nightmarish turn in Fatal Attraction, which earned a Best Actress nod in 1988), there was no reason to question the presumptions.
Unfortunately, the pick-up came later than anticipated and I wondered if the film would simply enter and exit theaters with little fanfare, nothing more than the nodding approval of the art house crowd. But a force of nature can never be overlooked and Close, in this film, is the closest thing we might have to such mythic power. Rather than sucking up all the energy and attention into herself, she spreads life throughout every frame of the film. She is the wife, mother, writer, and woman that brings complexity to everything around her.