FNE at Berlinale 2016: Genius

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Genius directed by Michal Grandage Genius directed by Michal Grandage

BERLIN: Successful London theatre director Michal Grandage makes an accomplished feature film debut with Genius a 1920s period piece set in the New York of the Roaring Twenties and boasting a cast of stars including Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Laura Linney, Dominic West and Guy Pearce. 

The story is based on A Scott Berg’s award-winning biography Max Perkins: Editor of Genius about the relationship between author Thomas Wolfe played by Jude Law and his editor Max Perkins played by Colin Firth.

Set against the background of 1920s literary New York where Max Perkins is the editor at Scribner’s Sons which was the first to sign up literary giants that included Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald the atmosphere of creative ferment is already a potent part of the story’s backdrop.  Perkins is convinced he has discovered a genius when a sprawling, chaotic 1,000-page manuscript by an unknown writer named Thomas Wolfe lands on his desk.

But the manuscript is un-publishable in its sprawling form. Perkins is committed to bringing the work of Wolfe to the public but there ensues a struggle as the two men fight over every single phrase on their quest to produce a version that can be published.

The outstanding feature of this film is the stellar cast and this might just be a career best performance for Jude Law. This might be a first film for Grandage but his extensive theatre experience means he is a master at working with actors and this shines through superbly in the film.

Not only Wolfe’s manuscript is chaotic.  Wolfe is a chaotic personality suffering from alcohol addiction  and a difficult relationship with his older lover Aline Bernstein played by Nicole Kidman in a role that does not really give this highly talented actress much chance to shine.

The focus of the film is the relationship between Perkins and Wolfe and the creative process.  Wolfe turned in manuscripts of between 1000 and 5000 words on his first novels and any lesser visionary editor than Perkins would have rejected to manuscripts when they landed on his desk. 

To say nothing of the ensuing struggle between the two men as they work together to create the books that were eventually published and which became acclaimed literary classics of the period.  Most editors would have thrown in the towel when faced with Wolfe’s difficult personality.

The wives of Wolfe and Perkins are suspicious of this close relationship and Laura Linney as Perkin’s wife turns in an especially fine performance.

Brief cameo appearances are made by Guy Pearce as F Scott Fitzgerald and Dominic West as Ernest Hemmingway although it is questionable if this adds anything to the plot although we do get the chance to see Perkins in a different role than just reacting to Wolfe’s intense and chaotic personality.

Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel eventually becomes a resounding success and the author is lionized and recognised as a giant of the New York literary scene.  But this brings its own problems as the author is unable to cope with the pressures of his own success.

While perhaps a bit cerebral of a general audience the star power involved should bring this film success on a general release.

Genius (UK, USA)
Directed by Michael Grandage
Cast: Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Laura Linney, Guy Pearce