Making movies about writers is treacherous business. There’s next to nothing cinematic about someone tapping away on a keyboard, then staring into the distance to think. And it’s just as disastrous when a film tries to demonstrate the writer’s plight, the most ludicrous example being Jane Fonda’s Lillian Hellman throwing her typewriter out a window in a bout of writerly pique.
Genius, Michael Grandage’s stalwart if staid biopic about literary editor Maxwell Perkins and author Thomas Wolfe, largely sidesteps the Scylla and Charybdis of inertia and burlesque through which any film about an artist must pass. Anchored by a quietly sympathetic performance by Colin Firth, this affecting portrait of friendship and creative collaboration may lack the dynamism of the work it celebrates, but it provides an absorbing account of a relationship that radically reshaped the American literary landscape of the 20th century.
Genius begins in 1929, with Perkins ruthlessly crossing out sentences in red pencil, when an associate dumps a 1,100-page manuscript on his desk.
Perkins begins to read and, in the graceful montage that ensues, keeps reading, through his commute home to Connecticut, through greeting his wife, Louise (Laura Linney), and five daughters, and practically through dinner, during which he forgets to take off his hat. “That’s a very long paragraph,” one of the Perkins girls observes, reading over her father’s shoulder. “It started four pages ago,” he replies.
So begins the literary bromance between Perkins — puritanical, concise and self-effacing — and Wolfe, the garrulous, self-sabotaging wunderkind from North Carolina, portrayed with puppyish overeagerness by Jude Law. Temperamental opposites who have an almost telepathic mutual understanding, the two would collaborate on that first manuscript (which would become Look Homeward, Angel) and Wolfe’s only bestseller, Of Time and the River.
Genius suffers from some common afflictions of the bookish biopic. Grandage, a fixture of the London theater scene making his film-directing debut, often makes the proceedings feel more like a play than a movie.
Yet Genius possesses an autumnal beauty, both in its visuals and a lovely, Coplandesque musical score that feels appropriate to the melancholic spirit of the story.
In addition to Firth’s sensitive portrayal of Perkins, Genius is made more interesting by Nicole Kidman, who as Wolfe’s married lover and patron throws out stinging shards of competition, rage and jealousy.
Genius may be a bit stodgy and safe, but it tells a story of beauty as it plays out in an improbably fruitful friendship, and as it’s discovered within vast expanses of raw language by a craftsman who was arguably an artist in his own right. As a character observes, the world needs poets, but poets need editors, a truth that the best poets know in their bones and the best editors never abuse.
Wolfe’s prodigious gifts notwithstanding, there’s no doubt to whom the title of Genius refers, in a film that proves its case with the taste, restraint and fundamental decency of the man himself.
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements and suggestive material. 1:44. Kentucky.