Directed by Michael Grandage
Written by John Logan (Based on Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg)
Starring Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Laura Linney
Review by Billy Seguire
The name of the editor of the Great American Novel will never be as famous as that of the author. It’s the author’s words that envelop you, entertain you, may live inside your head forever. Yet few remember those who chose which words not to say. Arriving in select markets June 24th, Genius is a film about edits. Anyone who’s worked on a piece of writing will understand its numerous sequences of cutting down, but it’s also about the choices we make in life. Filled with well-planned character moments that both visually and narratively define the film’s two lead characters, Genius is the story of an editor told through the edit.
At its heart, Genius tells a tragic love story between Max Perkins and Thomas Wolfe. Based on a novel by A. Scott Berg, this adaptation tells a remarkably personal story about how Wolfe’s novels Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time And The River went from unwieldy behemoths of text to bestselling works under Perkins’ editorial guidance. Over the course of two years, their relationship grew and connected the two of them, writer and editor together in tandem. Genius focuses on this relationship to the point where some may interpret homosexual subtext within the plot, with both Max and Tom’s female partners feeling lonely and abandoned by the development of the men’s close partnership. While that’s certainly up to interpretation, the film is mostly concerned with something more intangible.
More to the point, Genius is also about the choices and edits that separate the two men. At several points throughout the film, Max and Tom are given two roads. A choice that has to be made in one way or another, leading to the ultimate choice of reaching outwards to those around you or inwards within the work. When the process of editing Tom’s 5,000 page novel down to one volume becomes an obsessive process, both men find themselves eventually having to decide whether the sacrifice of their personal lives, or more importantly the lives of those around them, is worth it. With Perkins portrayed as a more human character than Wolfe’s uncontrollable genius, the film highlights that fundamental binary.
The visuals of Genius intentionally envelop you in muted colours that absorb the scenery in drab, dark tones of grey, beige, and white. Even trees seem gloomy and industrial. It’s not a depressing set of images, but the tone evoked by Grandage’s film is decidedly minimalist. Emphasising how Genius is all about the words, this puts focus on the dialogue between characters, making both writing and performance equal players to this period drama. The few scenes that are shot against bright, white skies blow you back with their brilliance, and they feel part of another film entirely, unbridled and unleashed.
Jude Law is enigmatic in the role of Thomas Wolfe. Portrayed with an unstoppable energy, you understand the way Wolfe captivates his onscreen audience with the poetic, rambling prose that pours out of him like a river. You just end up watching and listening in fascination as Law puts on this manic performance, and the number of reaction shots of Colin Firth smiling wryly while he does so encapsulates their relationship so well. The stomping of Wolfe’s foot is a motif that is repeated from the first shot of the film to the end, and the beat of it echoes the beat and rhythm of the words so key to Wolfe’s poetry. The strength of his spirit and determination is incumbent in every stomp.
By contrast, Colin Firth’s Max Perkins is a man of averages. A listener more than a speaker, his personal preference is to fade into the background with his work. The portrayal betrays a family man whose work as one of the most important editors in literary history in no way impacted his distinctly normal life. An opening scene of him looking for a quiet space in the house to read Wolfe’s debut manuscript is incredibly effective at establishing the spirit of a man who constantly puts others first and chooses to hide away rather than force a spotlight on himself. The choice never to have Max remove his hat throughout the film adds to this mythical restraint. For a movie about Max Perkins, our relationship to his character consistently feels just a little distant and formal. We never feel a facade has been fully lifted. When the hat does finally come off, it’s a forceful change in tone that works exceptionally well, an emotional climax that has the capacity to overwhelm due to the supremely crafted lead up.
Of the main cast, only Laura Linney seems under-served, with her character acting more as a moral compass for Max than a true character of her own. Even in her limited screen time, however, her role of bubbly yet powerful matriarch of the Perkins family shows a strong woman beneath the surface, one with hopes and aspirations who acts as a role model for her girls, even if she isn’t served well by the script. A more meaty role goes to Nicole Kidman as Aline Bernstein, Thomas Wolfe’s lover and supporter through his early days. She has agency and an arc within the movie all her own and, for the majority of the movie, is the only one pointing out Tom’s flaws while the rest are still enamoured by his charm. As a woman who throws everything in her life away to be with Thomas, only to be spurned herself, Aline comes off as desperate, self-destructive, and cruel. For me, this turn came too quick. We weren’t given enough time to care about the good in Aline and Tom’s relationship, and when Max says “you’re overplaying the scene” in a moment between the two near the end of the film, it ticks a box in the back of the viewer’s head as to how they’ve felt about the character. A scene between the two women is a high point for both characters, but each feels sorely dependant on their relationship with the film’s male characters.
The most notable scenes of Genius are the montages of editing between Max and Tom. The multi-year process of converting not just one, but two of Wolfe’s works into major novels of the 20th century makes for fascinating entertainment as we watch the men fight and bicker in scenes that at times are legitimately quite funny. Most of these take place in Max’s office, with the cramped and stifling interior providing consistency for the work. One scene set in a jazz bar, however, delights and adds colour to the film in an organic scene taking the men into a fresh perspective. Wolfe feels truly at home in this environment and Max is the foreigner amongst the freedom and lack of restriction the jazz world provides. In all scenes of Max’s office, Thomas seems restrained, holding back or fighting to get his voice heard. Here he truly makes sense. The jazz bar also allows Genius to give praise to Wolfe’s writing without ignoring the influence of the black voice on culture. The fact that jazz influenced Wolfe so heavily is not ignored, nor is the genius of Wolfe put in isolation against it, as the music and spirit of the environment is praised all on its own.
See It. This is an excellent story about writing and editing and an even better story about the choices that make up one’s life. There are no sequences that demand you go see this on the big screen, but the story, the plot, the words, those are everything. Visually cohesive, the drab colours of the film puts focus on what’s important without sacrificing the beauty of the picture. Characters are likeable and there really feels like there’s a rounded dynamic between all four main characters. Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald is a fascinating performance in understatement. It’s a film that will make you want to go back and read some of America’s greatest literature. You may even look up the name of an editor.