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Film review: Genius - literary bromance of editor Max Perkins and writer Thomas Wolfe

It would be easy to scoff at a film about writing and editing books, but Michael Grandage’s sepia-toned directorial debut is intriguing and oddly reminiscent of a drama about infidelity

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 August, 2016, 7:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 August, 2016, 7:00am

3.5/5 stars

Nothing invites mockery quite like a film about book writing and editing, both solitary activities of the mind. There’s nevertheless something intriguing about watching two grown men share a passion for literature and argue relentlessly over words, as Colin Firth and Jude Law’s characters do in the literary biopic Genius. This feature debut by celebrated stage director Michael Grandage is that rare bromance movie in which the lads are less connected via women and drugs than by their intense, cerebral pursuits.

Scripted for the screen by John Logan based on A. Scott Berg’s 1978 biography, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, the film focuses on the fervent relationship between Maxwell Perkins (played by Firth), the editor who famously honed the careers of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway from inside the New York offices of publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons, and Thomas Wolfe (Law), author of the sprawling, semi-autobiographical novels Look Homeward, Angel (1929) and Of Time and the River (1935).

Colin Firth, Jude Law – stars of literary biopic Genius – muse on reading in the digital era

What transpires is oddly reminiscent of an infidelity drama. In order for Max and Tom to refashion the latter’s bulky manuscripts into marketable titles, the mentor-protégé pair would spend virtually every day together, for years on end, away from their beloved: for Max, it’s his wife (Laura Linney) and five daughters; for Tom, it’s his volatile lover Aileen Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), a married set designer who abandons her family for Tom, only to lose him to the career she once urged him to persevere with.

Cast throughout in a pale brownish hue that reinforces its nostalgic quality, this story of old-fashioned literary triumph paints a vivid picture of the blemished humans beneath their great ideas. Not even the inevitable appearances of Hemingway (Dominic West) and the Fitzgerald couple (Guy Pearce and Vanessa Kirby) can distract from Wolfe’s struggles to express his talent in a responsible way. If Genius doesn’t lead its audiences back to Wolfe’s books, it’s possible nothing ever will.

Genius opens on August 11

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