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D: Michael Grandage / 104m

Cast: Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Laura Linney, Guy Pearce, Dominic West

If you’ve never heard of Maxwell Perkins (Firth) – and it’s very likely that you haven’t – then Genius, the debut feature by Michael Grandage, won’t actually tell you very much about him. You will discover that he was an editor at Charles Scribner’s & Sons during the Twenties and Thirties, and that he helped shape the writing careers of both F. Scott Fitzgerald (Pearce) and Ernest Hemingway (West). You’ll also learn that he had a wife, Louise (Linney), five daughters, and – apparently – never took off his hat, even at home. But these are just facts about the man. What made him tick, so to speak, what made him so passionate about books and writers, well, that’s another matter. And it’s one the movie, despite being based on A. Scott Berg’s National Book Award-winner Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (1978) and adapted by John Logan, fails to address.

Instead, the movie focuses on Thomas Wolfe (Law), an aspiring novelist whose first work of full-length fiction has been turned down by every other publishing house in New York except for Scribner’s. The novel, O Lost, is long, unwieldy, and overly descriptive in a grand romantic manner, but Perkins believes sincerely that it should be published, though with a fair bit of judicious pruning. Wolfe can’t believe his good luck, and agrees to working with Perkins to wrestle the novel into a more publishable form. Long months pass, and in 1929, Wolfe’s first novel is published to great acclaim with a new title, Look Homeward, Angel.

The two men are polar opposites. Perkins is quiet to the point of apparent catatonia, while Wolfe is brash, loud, and unapologetically hedonistic. He also writes like a man possessed, producing hundreds of pages of prose almost every day, but with no idea of how to corral that prose into a consistent format, or how to self-edit. Hence his need for Perkins to work with him. Wolfe’s success is compounded by his second novel (initially even more long, unwieldy and overly descriptive in a grand romantic manner), Of Time and the River, being just as well-regarded and received as his first. But now, jealousy and paranoia begin to take hold of Wolfe, and the idea that his books are only successful because of Perkins’ involvement, starts to nag at the author, and he takes steps to distance himself from Perkins and claim all the credit. This leads to an estrangement between the two men, as well as Wolfe signing with another publisher.

Genius moves at an agonisingly slow pace for the majority of its running time, and there are no end of scenes where Perkins sits reading manuscripts with nothing else happening within the frame. His is an interior, contemplative existence, allied to a contained, watchful existence that allows for few displays of honest emotion (when he raises his voice in anger to Louise at one point, it’s like a verbal slap across the face, such is the shock of it). Perkins may live most of his life through the pages of the books he edits, and he may be deliberately reclusive in terms of having a social life, but his skills as an editor can’t be challenged. The movie makes this point quite cleverly and quite succinctly, during a sequence where Perkins’ skill as an editor is given the spotlight. At first he reads out a passage Wolfe has written about the central character in O Lost falling in love at first sight. It’s overlong, and Perkins is unconvinced by much of Wolfe’s prose. And so he challenges Wolfe’s assertions at every turn, and soon the passage has been whittled down to a single, concise paragraph. And it’s so much better.

It’s also one of the very few occasions where the movie attempts to speed up or show a sense of urgency, but this is down to the editing of the sequence – step forward, Chris Dickens – rather than anything that Logan’s script or Grandage’s direction does. The slow, measured pace of the movie is its biggest obstacle to being liked, though the way in which Wolfe is introduced to the audience doesn’t help either. Where Firth underplays Perkins to silent perfection, Law is a bundle of energy as Wolfe, but in a way that soon proves wearing. He’s overly voluble, lacks filters, and is unconcerned if he upsets the people around him, a trait that become more and more entrenched the more successful he becomes. By the time Law has theatrically made his way through his third or fourth literary-style monologue, it’s clear that the template for the character has been set. Law is good as Wolfe, but his performance is one that Grandage doesn’t seem able to rein in when needed, and as a result, Law seems more in control of his performance than his director is.

While Linney is consigned to the background as Perkins’ demure, supportive wife, Kidman is given the more dramatic role of Wolfe’s lover, Aline Bernstein. Aline supported Wolfe when he was trying to get O Lost published, but as he found fame and fortune, their relationship became more and more adversarial, thanks largely to Aline’s feelings of betrayal and abandonment. Wolfe became dismissive of her feelings, and the disintegration of their relationship adds some much needed meat to the bones of Logan’s script. Kidman is caustic yet vulnerable as Aline, and it’s a shot in the arm for viewers who may have been thinking that the actress’s best work is behind her.

Despite the performances (Pearce is also on good form as a struggling Fitzgerald), the movie appears deliberately gloomy thanks to an almost monochrome colour scheme that’s been lit in equally dreary fashion by DoP Ben Davis. This makes the movie seem drier and even more constrained than it actually is, and again, Grandage doesn’t have any answers to combat this. Maybe it was a deliberate choice, and the movie is certainly consistent enough for this to be the case, but by making the movie look so unappealing and drab it has a knock-on effect on the material as a whole. It’s one of those occasions where you wonder if anyone was watching the dailies that closely.

In the end, the movie is less about Perkins and his talent as an editor, and it’s even less concerned with his legacy (trotting out scenes with Fitzgerald and Hemingway appears to be an attempt to do this, but these scenes are more about them than Perkins). The focus is on Wolfe and his need to write to the exclusion of all else that doesn’t further his writing. A scene midway through has Wolfe take Perkins to a jazz club. There the differences between the two men are highlighted, but in such a way that Perkins is left adrift as the scene concentrates on Wolfe. What Grandage and Logan have forgotten, it seems, is that Perkins is their main character, and not Wolfe, and this in turn makes one wonder: where was someone to shape and polish the script in the same way that Perkins shaped and polished the novels he helped publish? A fair point, maybe, but not one you’re likely to find an answer to.

Rating: 6/10 – good performances all round can’t help Genius avoid being labelled as tedious, tepid, or perfunctory; lacking emotions that might instil reactions from its audience, the movie is a dry, humdrum examination of literary excellence behind the scenes, and a love of the printed word aside, never takes flight in the way that it should do.

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