SHINING THE SPOTLIGHT ON THE EDITOR BEHIND THE CURTAIN
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Rating: PG-13; Grade: B+
Those of us in love with the written word, the idea of it springing live and full of kinetic energy from the page (and initially from the mind of a writer), will bathe in the luxurious warmth provided by actor-turned-director Michael Grandage (seizing command here for the first time) and screenwriter John Logan (Oscar nominated for his work on “Gladiator,” “The Aviator” and “Hugo”). Based on the book by A. Scott Berg, “Genius” puts words, glorious fountains of words, in the mouths of a sterling cast, attributing the ideas and sentiments to writers such as Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The focus of the film comes down to the relationship between Max Perkins (Colin Firth), the rather subdued book editor at Charles Scribner who shepherded classic works from that aforementioned list of literary giants back in the 1920s and 1930s and, in particular, Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), the young and quite raw lion of letters. Wolfe had been dismissed by every publisher in New York prior to Perkins, who read a dense and rambling early draft of “O Lost” and saw genius embedded in the rough and sprawling form. He signed the rambunctious writer and worked closely with him to hone the text into the bestselling “Look Homeward, Angel” (which would turn the writer into a sensation).
On-screen though, Law as Wolfe is an unedited volcano, spewing hot magma, a stew of emotion and indelicate inexperience driven by an unquenchable hunger for life. At one point, Wolfe talks about his escape from Asheville, North Carolina, a birthplace I happen to share with him, and I recognized the sentiment, the thrashing and yelling out of the birth canal of that tiny town. Law brings that primal urgency to life with all of the necessary violence intact. I felt a similar passion, decades and several generational movements later propelling me to leave Asheville, before it became the idyllic bohemian retreat it is today. And I wonder how Wolfe would feel about the city now. Would it still inspire such righteous fury or would he have to look elsewhere for the spark to set his spirit ablaze?
In contrast, we see Perkins, always topped off with a perfectly perched hat, smoking and reading, taking in the pages of books and the narrative of life around him. It would be easy to label him dispassionate, especially next to Wolfe, but Grandage and Firth let us see how erroneous that assumption would be. The intensity of the man’s gaze and his active and quite beautiful mind increases as he pushes Wolfe during their marathon editing sessions. Wolfe drops stacks, and then bushels of pages on Perkins, unwieldy torrents of ideas and narratives that claim to capture the whole of the world, and it becomes Perkins’s mission to tame and shape them into something that best represents Wolfe. This is no small task, but Perkins never for a moment seeks to claim any share of the praise that he is certainly due. It becomes apparent, especially when in relation to his home life with his wife Louise (Laura Linney) and his bounty of daughters that he has as much at stake as his writers, as he expends long hours in pursuit of literary perfection.
We appreciate that what he does with Wolfe is, in effect, no different than what he achieved with Hemingway (Dominic West) and Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce), although the specifics of the effort certainly were tailored to each writer. There are carefully tended glimpses into his dynamics with each of them.
Fitzgerald poignantly addresses the impact of Perkins to Wolfe, when the cocky writer has dared to rail against him, summing up how Perkins has a “genius of friendship” that cannot be overlooked or underestimated. Ample proof exists throughout the film, but audiences would be wise to look more deeply and appreciate the art of display as well. Grandage and Logan showcase numerous exchanges that define the high craft inherent in editing (which I would argue is akin to criticism). A. O. Scott has reminded us “How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth” in his book “Better Living Through Criticism,” and I would argue that “Genius” does a fine job of making the case for better living through proper editing.