British theatre director Michael Grandage makes his cinematic debut with Genius, based on A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius and starring an excitable Jude Law as novelist Thomas Wolfe. With a screenplay written by Gladiator writer John Logan, Genius tells the story of how Scribner’s Sons editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth) wrangled Wolfe’s thousands of pages of manuscript into the novels Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River. To establish that Perkins is a man of routine and family, we begin with the editor’s journey home, through the New York streets, on the train, walking to his house, all while becoming engrossed in O Lost, Wolfe’s lengthy manuscript that landed on his desk earlier that day.
Perkins greets all five of his daughters and his wife Louise (Laura Linney), finally finds somewhere to read (the closet), later joins his family for dinner and is still reading at his desk in his pyjamas. Throughout this sequence, and the entirety of the film, Perkins never takes his hat off, an eccentricity that no character ever comments on, but which is of course clunkily important later on. When Max and Tom start working together, theirs is a bromance that Grandage clearly wants the viewer to invest in. Max’s life is invigorated, he invests all his free time in Tom’s book, to the detriment of his family, meanwhile Tom is simply blown over by his generosity. Law’s performance is the kind of gesturing, obnoxious, attention-grabbing type that serves only to show how much Firth is trying to underplay, whilst Logan’s dialogue has Tom speak just as he writes, an attempt to suggest his improvisational genius, which fails to convince.
Women get short shrift throughout. Nicole Kidman plays Aline Bernstein, Tom’s lover and benefactor who, having left her husband and family when she fell in love, has become utterly beholden to his so-called charms. With a career of her own as a theatre designer, Aline is initially shown to stand up to Tom, but later loses all sense of herself, going to extreme lengths to get a scrap of affection from her self-obsessed paramour. Louise doesn’t fare much better. Instantly dismissed by Tom, she’s neglected by Max as he’s drawn into editing the next, even weightier tome. Zelda Fitzgerald (Vanessa Kirby) also appears, but in a post-treatment catatonic state, and is treated with contempt by Tom.
What’s so unbearable about Genius, beyond the insufferable characterisation of Wolfe, making Max’s tolerance of him totally unbelievable, is that Aline’s tragic plight, to be cast aside so heartlessly, is undermined by the film’s ultimate glorification of its protagonist. That Aline has the satisfaction of telling Tom she finally feels nothing for him, does little to assuage the characterisation of her throughout the film, as hysterical and irrational – even Max belittles her gun threat by running straight to Tom rather than actually give her some consideration. By the film’s end, Grandage appears only to care for delivering the standard prestige moment of catharsis, for which it’s impossible to feel anything other than disdain.
The 2016 Berlin Film Festival takes place between 11-21 February. Follow our coverage here.
Harriet Warman | @HarrietWarman