8 September 2016

Michael Grandage’s ‘Genius’

To describe Genius as unusual would probably be an understatement. It is Grandage’s first film, although he is an eminent director in London theatre. It is set in the USA in the 1930s, but was shot in England in 2015. It includes cameos of two of America's most famous writers, Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald, but these are played by Dominic West (British) and Guy Pearce (Australian). A Brit is cast as the film’s main character, Maxwell Perkins, pre-eminent literary editor of the time at Scribner's in New York but obscure now in the UK and probably so even then. When Genius is released in the UK, Perkins should gain a little more recognition, if only for having been brought to the screen by no less than Colin Firth. To add to the confusion, the film is based on a biography published as long ago as 1978: A Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius.

Genius is not just a biopic but a bi-biopic of Perkins and of the writer Thomas Wolfe (no, not Tom Wolfe), played by Jude Law (British), covering the years between their first meeting in 1929 and the latter's death in 1938 at the age of 37. Wolfe arrives in Perkins' office with a voluminous and much-rejected manuscript titled O lost. Those (like me) who haven't read anything by Wolfe will just have to accept that his style was prolix before editing and wordy afterwards. Perkins produces his red pencil and convinces Wolfe to agree to the slimming down of the thousand pages of O Lost by hundreds of pages to transform it into Look Homeward, Angel, a best-seller in 1929. An even more epic set of deletions is required in 1935 to turn the four crates of hand-writing constituting the draft of Of Time and the River into something publishable.

Perkins never had, but clearly wanted, a son, despite his wife gamely producing five daughters. So there is an inevitable father-missing-a-son dimension in the close Perkins and Wolfe collaboration, although Perkins was only 16 years older. A classical rite of passage arises when Wolfe, his fame secured by Perkins, departs for another publisher. Not that Wolfe had been too much troubled earlier when he discarded the theatre designer Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman, Australian), his lover and patron in the days of his obscurity. Another theme is provided by Perkins’ musings over the nature of the role of an editor when it involves so substantial an input to a writer’s work. Just which genius should be credited with the outcome? Similar issues arise when artists produce works with the help of “assistants”, but the convention for literary editors is to stay in the shadows.

Many of the US reviewers of Genius did little to conceal their dismay at the film’s UK provenance and, apart from Laura Linney as Perkins' wife, Louise, the absence of a significant involvement by any of their own. Richard Brody in the New Yorker, admitting it was “a facile way to review it”, concentrated on a fact-check of Genius against Berg’s biography, identifying various errors and simplifications. His justification seemed to be the film’s title card describing Genius as “a true story”. However, on even brief consideration this is surely just as ambiguous a phrase as “editor of genius”. It’s a testimony to the craft of the British film industry that  American reviewers didn't seem to think that the realisation of New York and elsewhere in the US in the 1930s lacked authenticity.

Firth is a master of conveying the feelings of inhibited souls (for example in The King’s Speech) in a few words or none. Apparently  Perkins was very reluctant to take his fedora off.  Kidman’s Bernstein is aggrieved but justifiably so – whether Law’s Wolfe is over the top or how the man was, I don’t know. West and Pearce are convincing as the two literary lions of the three whose reputations have endured.  I thought it was one of the best-looking films I had seen since The Two Faces of January. Particularly striking was Perkins’ office at Scribner’s (below) where so many of the film’s key events take place.

Max Perkins (Colin Firth, left) and Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law)

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