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Once upon a time, the word “genius” made us think not the help counter in an Apple Store but of people of incredible intellect who accomplished amazing things and relied on nothing more than their brains and bare hands. This “Genius” transports us back to such a time: 1929, when in New York City, the illustrious editor Maxwell Perkins at Charles Scribner’s Sons is revered in the chronicles of American literature as the man who edited the works of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

By many accounts, Perkins had an infallible nose for marketable prose. He could edit his way out of a jail cell if he ever found himself in one. “Genius” zeroes in on Perkins’ life from the moment when Thomas Wolfe, a young unknown novelist, walks through his door and a tumultuous literary friendship begins.

Based on the biography by A. Scott Berg (“Max Perkins: Editor of Genius”) and directed by Michael Grandage, “Genius” is chock-full of period detail. It is rich with ink stains and pencil scribblings, while raucous in dialogue and the clacking of typewriter keys. Back then, books were weighty, valuable and involved a life of toil. To hold a volume in your hands was like handling a pound flesh of the writer and editor. The written word really meant something, and “Genius” shows Perkins (Colin Firth) grappling with words like a wrestler with an opponent, while Wolfe (Jude Law), dived into them like an athlete into a swimming pool.

Genius (Best Seller: Henshusha Perkins ni Sasagu)
Rating
Run Time 104 mins
Language English
Opens OCT. 14

Initially, the relationship between the two seems magical. The insecure Wolfe was certain that Scribner would turn down his lumpy, overlong first novel (which Perkins eventually titled “Look Homeward, Angel”), but Perkins assures him otherwise.

Wolfe is depicted as a loud-mouthed Southerner with a penchant for bragging. Perkins is all somber gravitas and a dedicated family man.

Firth does what he does best in balancing that serious reticence with a willingness to be open and emotional when he’s around Wolfe. The young novelist soon treats him as a father figure, which Perkins welcomes, since he’s the lone male in a house full of women (he has five giggling daughters and an opinionated wife, played by Laura Linney) and had always longed for a son.

With the success of “Look Homeward, Angel,” Wolfe seems destined for greatness, and Perkins invests most of his waking hours into Wolfe’s second (and in his opinion, better) novel “Of Time and the River.” As Wolfe spends all his time at the typewriter, cranking out reams of text that end up forming into an enormous, 5,000-page monster, and Wolfe devotes his time to editing it down, Mrs. Perkins begins to resent her husband’s absence from the family and worries that their daughters will grow up and leave before they ever get a chance to know their father.

But the pull of words proves too strong for Perkins. He camps out in the office, getting the monster into shape and manages to cut 90,000 words. The novel becomes far more manageable, but Wolfe turns on Perkins for daring to slash so much copy.

Despite the presence of Linney and Nicole Kidman as Aline, Wolfe’s older lover and patron, “Genius” remains tightly focused on the relationship between Wolfe and Perkins. When their bromance begins to unravel, it feels like a love affair drawing to a close (though the story never makes that suggestion).

Interestingly, in a story about two great figures in American literature, the main cast, with the exception of Linney, comprises Britons and Australians. Dominic West also appears as Hemingway and Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald. Whether that was a coincidental or veiled intentional casting choice, aside from Law’s deplorable Southern accent the set-up works: The sight of Firth and Law completely immersing themselves in the world of the written word and stacks of paper looks just right.

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