Berlinale 2016: 'Genius' is a Very Touching Film About Literary Friends
by Alex Billington
February 17, 2016
It's not often that we see a film about editors, about the hard-working, dedicated people that hide behind-the-scenes and help writers produce their best work. Michael Grandage's Genius is a very touching story about two friends - writer/novelist Thomas Wolfe, and Charles Scribner's Sons editor Maxwell Perkins. Max first meets Tom when a massive manuscript is dropped on his desk. He reluctantly reads it, but finds it to be absolutely wonderful, bringing in the writer to work on cutting it down so they can sell it as a novel. This ends up becoming Wolfe's first book Look Homeward, Angel, and it was the beginning of a rewarding relationship between these two showing just how important an editor is to producing truly successful work.
Directed by Michael Grandage, Genius is set in New York City in the 1920s and spends less time in the city, more time following Max and Tom in the Scribner's Sons office and at Max's home upstate. Perkins is famously known for being the editor that found and helped publish the books by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Colin Firth takes on the role of Max and does a remarkable job being reserved, humble and intelligent. He rarely ever cracks a smile, but when he does, you can feel the warmth flow right through the screen. One of the pivotal scenes is when he questions whether his job really makes stories better, or just different. He's very charming and easily lovable, making him the most grounded, relatable character in this.
On the other side, Jude Law does an outstanding job playing the brilliant writer Thomas Wolfe. Though his performance is unquestionably over the top and at times goofy, in a rather flamboyant and overly expressive way, he admits at one point early on that this is who he is. Just because he acts like this and seems a bit crazy on the surface (also often getting belligerently drunk), doesn't mean he still doesn't feel deeply and have complex emotions and thoughts the same as everyone else. That admittance was more than enough to satisfy me and quell any concerns. I did find his performance amusing and over the top, but in just the right way, adding lots of levity and potentially accurately representing Wolfe's actual personality and presence.
The film is packed with all kinds of nice touches that add quite a bit of substance to the story: steam trains galore, a beautiful view of New York City from a rooftop, a rather lovely score by Adam Cork that is never overpowering, as well as a deep appreciation for the power of literature. The filmmaking never really feels heavy-handed, as it focuses primarily on the relationship between Max and Tom (with their lovers thrown in for good measure, played by Laura Linney and Nicole Kidman, with solid performances) and shows how even through tumultuous, tough times, despite yelling and arguing, two people can still connect very deeply and remain friends right to the end. This will make you want to curl up with a good book once it's all over, maybe one of Thomas Wolfe's novels if you've never read them, to appreciate great editing and storytelling.
Alex's Berlinale 2016 Rating: 8 out of 10
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