How do you convey what goes through the mind of an artist, or a composer, or an author? Movie history is littered with failed attempts to dramatize the lives and motivations of creative people. But somehow, Genius manages to capture the grandiose dreams of author Thomas Wolfe and the dedication of his fabled editor, Maxwell Perkins. It is an altogether extraordinary achievement.
Colin Firth is well cast as Perkins, the man who played midwife to the published works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, among other celebrated (and difficult) authors. In this adaptation of A. Scott Berg’s brilliant biography Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius, the lion’s share of attention is given to Wolfe, a larger-than-life Southerner played—in an Oscar-worthy performance—by Jude Law.
Wolfe, whose unwieldy manuscripts have been rejected by every publisher in New York, finds an ally and protector in Perkins at Scribner’s and Sons, although it means the editor will have to work for endless months to tame Wolfe’s sprawling work. It also means he will neglect his loving but long-suffering wife (Laura Linney) and daughters at their home in Connecticut.
Theater director Michael Grandage and a team of talented colleagues bring New York in the 1920s and ‘30s to vivid life. Viewers too young to have walked into an old-fashioned wood-paneled office, where the secretarial pool was visible through panes of glass, and each desk had an inkwell and a tabletop lamp, will get a good idea of this bygone era.
Screenwriter John Logan bought the rights to Berg’s biography twenty years ago and has endured several near-misses before seeing this film come to fruition. The versatile and prolific writer (creator of television’s Penny Dreadful and author of the prize-winning play Red, whose film credits range from Sweeney Todd to the recent James Bond movies) has done Max Perkins proud.
Nicole Kidman tackles the difficult role of Tom Wolfe’s self-destructive mistress, while Guy Pearce and Dominic West make brief but effective appearances as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, respectively. (If you want to know more about their relationship with Perkins it’s well worth reading Berg’s book, which originated as a doctoral thesis at Princeton University.)
But principal acting honors go to Firth, as the introverted but steadfast advocate of authors, and Law, as the flamboyant writer who, in spite of his many idiosyncrasies, is worthy of Perkins’ faith in him.
As someone who loves books, and authors, I immediately warmed to this film. It may not be flawless but it won me over completely.