Arts Review, Movies
Michael Grandage, director
John Logan, script based on Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg
Starring: Colin Firth (Maxwell Perkins), Jude Law (Thomas Wolfe), Nicole Kidman (Aline Bernstein), Dominic West (Ernest Hemingway), Guy Pearce (F. Scott Fitzgerald), Laura Linney (Louise Sanders)
When a film is titled Genius, the leading man or woman is normally quite obvious. Not in this case. Acclaimed theatre director Michael Grandage, who was the artistic head of the Donmar Warehouse in London for a decade, has chosen to make an uncompromising film debut with the tale of a book editor’s relationship to a major writer, set in long-ago New York, from 1929 through 1938. Considering that the book editor is Maxwell Perkins, who discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and the writer is Thomas Wolfe, a highly acclaimed novelist during that time, it certainly isn’t clear who the “genius” is in Grandage’s film. And perhaps that’s the point.
Wolfe met Perkins in the late 1920s when he was an unpublished novelist and his future editor was the talk of the literary world, having worked with Fitzgerald on The Great Gatsby (1925) and Hemingway on The Sun Also Rises (1926), arguably the most influential novels of the so-called Lost Generation. Perkins saw Wolfe’s talent and in arguably the most successful editorial feat of all time, cut 90,000 words from a prolix autobiographical tome called “O Lost,” transforming it into the brilliant debut novel, Look Homeward, Angel (1929).
After that triumph, the emotionally needy Wolfe became a close friend of Perkins’ wife and five daughters. Many have claimed that Wolfe became his surrogate son, while Perkins may well have become almost a stepfather to the rising youngish author. Over the next six years, Perkins wrestled Wolfe’s 5000 page second novel into a 800 page epic entitled Of Time and the River (1935). This proved to be Wolfe’s only hit although he was already an artistic celebrity after the publication of Look Homeward, Angel.
Genius covers this story in detail, with ample room for the lead actors to dominate proceedings in a way that feels theatrical. Colin Firth is rock solid—a brilliant reactive presence–as Perkins, an old-fashioned man of letters and honour, whose only flaw as a husband and father is an absolute commitment to his work. He’s more than matched by Jude Law, in the best performance of his career, as Wolfe, the wayward Southern boyish man, who wrote—and wrote and wrote!—amazing prose, some of which was awful and some, terrific.
In a neat trick, Grandage’s cast is made up of Aussie and Brits, with the exception of American Laura Linney, who has very little to do as Perkins’ loving wife and mother of their children. It’s vaguely disconcerting to see Australians Guy Pearce and Nicole Kidman as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Aline Bernstein (Wolfe’s supportive lover, who eventually is discarded by the novelist). And it’s almost risible when Brit Dominic West shows up as Hemingway. You can imagine Firth, Law and West heading off to the pub to talk over Brexit and England at the Euros instead of such weighty matters as who should write the Great American Novel: Hem, Fitz or Wolfe.
Genius covers quite well the drama of the messy break-up of the Wolfe-Perkins partnership followed soon after by the young novelist’s sad demise. But it’s also fair to say that Grandage has erred in making the film rather too arty for its own good. I don’t think I’ve seen a film with this dark a palate since some of the film noir parodies of the past couple of decades. Kidman is also dealt with unfairly: her Aline Bernstein is a fascinating neurotic character undone by a poor script, which doesn’t give her a fighting chance to express herself.
For lovers of literature, Genius is a must-see. It does right by your bookish heroes. Jude Law and Colin Firth fans should be pleased, too. For others, well, streaming should be happening soon.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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