Proving himself to be equally as adept directing people on the screen as on the stage, the first movie by Michael Grandage, former artistic director of London’s Donmar Warehouse theatre now turned filmmaker, is a lively lament on one of the world’s finest literary partnerships.
Adapted by John Logan from A. Scott Berg’s award-winning biography Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, Grandage’s film meets Perkins (Colin Firth) in 1920s New York, where he has already built himself a considerable reputation by publishing the likes of Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) for Scribner’s Son. Then one day, someone dumps a sprawling and chaotic 1000-page manuscript on Max’s desk that has been written by an unknown author named Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law). Moved by the writer’s poetic prose, Max decides to publish the novel, and sets the course for a friendship that will, for better or worse, change both men’s lives.In stark contrast to the dour deliverance of John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings, a film with which Genius shares a certain degree of thematic DNA, Michael Grandage directs his work with an excitable dexterity that’s effortlessly engaging. The depression of the era is coated in the sooty sepia tones of the pale colour scheme; so dusty and sterile that you can practically smell the stale smoke lingering in the Scribner offices. However, it is the soulful and melodic beats of the Jazz Age that truly set the tone, lighting the lens with a lusty luminosity that manifests in the lashings of sharp wit the script serves up; “that’s a long paragraph” remarks Max’s eldest daughter as she catches a glimpse of Wolfe’s text, “it began four pages back” wryly comes the editor’s exhausted response.
Colin Firth’s sturdy but simplistic performance as Perkins is the anchor here, but it’s Jude Law’s Wolfe who holds our gaze. It’s an electric depiction of the eccentric writer, infused with a grandiose exuberance that’s exhilarating but never exaggerated, more an amplification of his passion.
There are structural insufficiencies to Logan’s text that do distract. The inclusion of certain mitigating characters appears misguided: the crowbarred cameos of both Hemingway and Fitzgerald slackening the runtime. While strong support from Laura Linney (gentle & genial) and Nicole Kidman (deliciously unhinged) as Max and Thomas’ respective others is wasted; the female characters merely foils designed to add doses of domestic melodrama. Not quite Genius then, but perhaps not as far away from it as you would expect.