If you can get past the spectacle of British and Australian actors portraying some of the most important figures of 20th-century American literature, Genius is a good example of a prestige pic that is not only literate but surprisingly vibrant. It’s the story of the tumultuous relationship between hot-tempered, Asheville, North Carolina–born Thomas Wolfe, played by noted Londoner Jude Law, and his reserved but brilliant editor Maxwell Perkins, a New Yorker being played by possibly the most British person alive, Colin Firth. Also showing up for the party are Sheffield, England’s Dominic West as Ernest Hemingway and Australia’s Guy Pearce as (who else?) F. Scott Fitzgerald. Don’t get me wrong: These are all excellent actors, and they acquit themselves quite well. But it’s still odd. I can only assume that Kenneth Branagh’s William Faulkner and Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Steinbeck are on the cutting-room floor.
All joking aside, there is a fascinating tale to be told here. A visionary in his own right, Perkins effectively discovered Fitzgerald and Hemingway, helping shape The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby, often in the face of skeptical colleagues. And the uniquely untamed Thomas Wolfe may well have been Perkins’ greatest challenge — psychologically wounded, narcissistic and seemingly incapable of handing in a manuscript that wasn’t thousands of pages long. The film — directed by Michael Grandage, written by John Logan and based on A. Scott Berg’s 1978 biography Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius — makes good use of its lead actors’ contrasting energies — of Firth’s prim reserve and of Law’s bellowing flamboyance. (It is interesting how many times the latter has played Southerners, in movies such as Cold Mountain and All the King’s Men; somebody likes that Englishman’s drawl.)
Genius finds drama in the contrast between a Wolfe prone to near-shamanic flights of fancy and a Perkins who is quiet, collected, methodical. The young writer arrives at Perkins’ office after being rejected by every other publishing house in town and declares, “I wanted to meet you — the man who first read F. Scott Fitzgerald and said, ‘Yes, the world needs poets!’” Calmly, Perkins tells the stunned Wolfe that Scribner's will publish Wolfe's goliath of a manuscript, then titled O Lost — but that they need to cut 300 pages from it first. (The book would eventually become Look Homeward, Angel , one of the greatest of all novels and still clocking in at 500-plus pages.)
The differences in temperament also filter down to the women in these men’s lives. Wolfe has shacked up with older, wealthy costume designer Aline Bernstein (a compellingly brooding Nicole Kidman), who is still married to her financial-broker husband. She and Wolfe share a great, openly adulterous passion, but the wiser Bernstein recognizes that Perkins himself will soon supplant her in the young writer’s affections; while she may have provided Wolfe with inspiration, the editor will allow him to consummate his art. Perkins, meanwhile, takes the train at the end of each day to his much-neglected wife, Louise (Laura Linney, holy shit, an American) and five daughters at his stately New Canaan, Connecticut, home — a place where the books are kept properly arranged on shelves and where you can sense the chilly comfort of an uneventful existence.
All that contrast is Screenwriting 101, but it’s slickly done — atmospheric, witty, never boring. The film truly comes into its own when it dramatizes the literary push-pull between Wolfe and Perkins, as the editor tries to rein in the writer’s galloping, seemingly ceaseless prose. Perkins doesn’t just cut — he questions and contextualizes. A scene where the two men work on an epic, multipage passage about the eyes of a woman a man glimpses on a train (in what would become Wolfe’s Of Time and the River) has the stomach-gnawing suspense of a psychological thriller.
“You don’t like it?” Wolfe asks. “You know I do, but that’s not what it’s about,” Perkins replies. “I think you fell in love with the image, not the girl.” Later, he adds that the moment “should be like a thunderbolt, not a digression.” For Perkins, editing is not an act of reduction but something closer to psychic therapy — an effort to help a work achieve its best self. For Wolfe, however, writing is the raw assertion of his very being; “I hate to see the words go,” he laments, even though he’s adding new pages by the day.
There is some historical debate as to whether Perkins actually improved Wolfe’s books; a reconstruction of the writer’s original O Lost has its champions. And you may well wonder to what extent these sharply delineated and movie-friendly portrayals conform to historical reality. Law’s Wolfe is a guy who literally taps his toes to an inner rhythm, and whose self-involvement bulldozes all in his path; I don't know how well his mannerisms correspond to the real Wolfe's, but as a cinematic presence, he’s riveting. Indeed, Law and Firth are playing more than two true-life personages. They’re representing two very specific, competing ideas of genius — unrestrained, impulsive and all-consuming versus focused, probing and incisive. The film is more about the collision, and collusion, of these two forces than it is about the friendship of two flesh-and-blood men.