First-time film director Michael Grandage’s biopic, Genius, about the relationship between writer Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) and editor Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth), has split critics down the middle at this point. That’s neither surprising (biopics tend to get trashed), nor is it likely to affect how a film about Thomas Wolfe is going to play in Asheville — even though only one brief scene takes place here and all of the film was shot in England. (Apparently, Liverpool looks more like 1920s-30s New York than modern New York does, which isn’t hard to believe.) The truth is that Genius is actually a good movie. It’s the sort of polished, high-toned prestige picture with a high-caliber cast — Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Laura Linney, Guy Pearce and Dominic West — that usually lands in theaters during award season.
I’m not complaining, however, to find it opening amidst all the spandex spectaculars, action comedies and animated antics of the summer. Far from it. Well-made movies are always welcome. Intelligent, well-made movies that are grounded in the idea that there’s an audience for a movie about a somewhat out-of-fashion author and his editor are even more welcome — and that’s exactly what we have here. The film dares to be about people and ideas — not to mention depicting an art form that is almost impossible to dramatize. (Leave us face it, nothing about the process of writing is inherently cinematic — editing barely more so.) John Logan’s screenplay doesn’t leave out the writing or the editing, but it wisely focuses on the relationships while creating a literary air to it all. These people live and breathe literature.
Whether or not Wolfe ever said things with the kind of poetry he does here (though I suspect there’s some truth in it) matters less than the portrait it creates. Did Wolfe actually tell Max Perkins, “I know I seem like a freak. Too loud. Too … too … too grandiose. Not quite real. That’s who I am. That’s how I got out of Asheville — by making noise. I thrashed my way out. But I feel things like a real person. So, from Caliban’s heart, I say this — for all my life until I met you, I never had a friend”? Maybe, but it’s actually immaterial, since it heightens the film’s image of the character and adds nuance to the dynamic of the odd surrogate-father-and-son relationship. It also imbues the film with a heartbreaking poetry of its own. If it sounds like something out of one of Wolfe’s books, all the better, since the books are highly autobiographical. The whole film is rife with this quality.
The story itself — covering the last nine years of Wolfe’s life — may be less than the quality of its words, but it contains both those words and fine performances by the four main players: Firth (who only removes his hat in the last scene, which carries enormous emotional weight), Law, Kidman (as Wolfe’s lover Aline Bernstein) and Linney (as Perkins’ wife Louise). The whole dramatic thrust of two women realizing, or at least feeling, that they are losing their mates to a friendship between two men is unusual in itself. It is, however, fair to say that Pearce’s F. Scott Fitzgerald and West’s Ernest Hemingway are almost superfluous, but they are still part of the package since Perkins edited their work, too.
It’s a pleasure to note that Grandage, a stage director, has taken to film almost completely here. There may be a sense of the theatrical about Genius, but there’s not even a hint of staginess. It is wholly — though not necessarily distinctively — cinematic. And, for once, the business of draining the film of most of its color — rather too beloved of prestige productions — actually feels right and not just an affectation. Is Genius a great film? I won’t go that far, but it is intelligent and entertaining. And moving. I’ll take that. Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and suggestive content.
Playing at Carolina Cinemark and Fine Arts Theatre.