'Genius': Berlin Review

An interesting subject that remains impervious to dramatization.

Colin Firth plays famed New York literary editor Max Perkins, with Jude Law as his most challenging author, Thomas Wolfe, in theater director Michael Grandage's feature debut.

Writing is often called the loneliest profession, and the relationship between author and reader is a uniquely intimate one, a private communication from the page to the individual imagination. Opening out that sacred union of writer, text and reader for the screen can often seem a violation of an exclusive pact. That might partly explain why so many films about the lives of famous writers are unsatisfying. For every Capote, there's a Sylvia. The most illuminating films about writers tend to fuse their subjects' lives and work into idiosyncratic storytelling that reflects both. Think An Angel at My Table, American Splendor, Adaptation.

But if the writer's life and creative process are often unsuited to straight dramatization, what about the editor's? Parsing typed pages with a red pencil and whittling down prolix chunks of text into elegant prose is a process that may be of personal interest to many of us. But it's probably never going to be quality-grade clay out of which to model a compelling screen drama.

That proves to be the case with Michael Grandage's first feature, Genius, a classy but dull literary love affair (please, let's not call it a bromance) between prominent Scribner's editor Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth) and one of his star authors, Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law). That brilliant but undisciplined maxi-novelist submitted a manuscript for Look Homeward, Angel that was more than 1,000 pages long, and another for Of Time and the River that — as depicted here — was delivered in a cargo of A4 bundles barely contained by four crates.

A leading Brit stage director lauded on both sides of the Atlantic, Grandage ran London's Donmar Warehouse for 10 years and now heads his own successful theater company. Clearly, his extensive experience taking both new and established works and finding the key to translate the authors' intentions for an audience made him relate to the work of Perkins, who had already launched the careers of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway before encountering Wolfe.

One of Grandage's previous collaborations with screenwriter John Logan was on the latter's 2009 play Red. Another intensely focused depiction of the creative process of a volatile artist (in that case Mark Rothko), the play won six Tony Awards. But Logan's work here, adapted from A. Scott Berg's biography, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, while admirable in its intelligence and restraint, struggles from the outset to overcome inherent challenges. The story of Perkins' collaboration and friendship with Wolfe remains stubbornly resistant to both drama and emotion.

That forces Grandage to lean unduly on two key solutions. One is to crank up Law's performance to a level that would play to the back rows of a large theater but becomes wearing onscreen, even if the actor's vitality is impressive. An exuberant Southerner whose speech is almost as florid as his prose style, Law's Tom is all physical and mental urgency — sweeping gestures, euphoric highs, stormy lows. He seems to be working even harder because Firth's Max is so calm, measured and well, dreary. This is a man who only removes his hat in a final scene as his eyes fill with tears, a release in which he's likely to remain alone.

The director's other strenuous bid to inject energy into the material is by plastering every scene with music, the recourse of many an anxious filmmaker. Adam Cork is a theater composer who has worked frequently with Grandage (including on a Hamlet that starred Law), and his score is almost manic in its efforts to jazz up — literally, since we're in the 1920s and '30s — repetitive scenes depicting the two men hard at work.

Max's realization that something extraordinary has landed on his desk after being rejected by every publisher in town is accompanied by Law reading huge dollops of Proustian prose in voiceover while Firth intensifies his focus on the pages and Cork's music swells. But the scenes have less life than a lot of audiobooks.

The story's conflict comes from two principal sources. One is the difficulty of stemming Tom's output while simultaneously working to distill it. He keeps producing hundreds of new pages for his autobiographical novels as Max toils to remove the fat from others.

Then there's Tom’s lover, Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), a well-heeled, older, theatrical scenic designer who left her husband and family to support him for five years. She becomes a jealous drama queen when Tom's friendship and consuming schedule with Max take him away from her. She warns the editor that Tom will move on from him, too, after he's served his purpose. Paradoxically though, Kidman's most affecting work is in a hysteria-free scene late in the action after Aline has struggled long and hard to get over Tom and she speaks plainly about his fatal character flaws.

A less robust thread in the drama reveals Max's guilt over neglecting his wife, Louise (Laura Linney), a frustrated stage actress yearning for glamor, and their five daughters, in order to nurture his needy man-child author. Without much emotional resonance, the point is made that Wolfe's issues with his father made Perkins a surrogate parent, while Max found the son he had always wanted in the untamed Tom.

Scenes with Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) and Hemingway (Dominic West) serve to provide contrasting glimpses into the life of the writer, as well as Max's supportive role with them. The tortured Scott is well past his creative bloom and morosely unproductive, racked with pain over the mental decline of Zelda (Vanessa Kirby). A drunken Tom shows his cruel side in insensitive comments to Scott at a dinner. He-man Ernest is the embodiment of an author as hungry for life as he is for artistic fulfillment. A scene in which Max accompanies him marlin fishing off Key West brings a rare wash of dazzling light amid the film's desaturated New York color palette. Another comes when Tom visits Scott in Hollywood, where he's plodding away as a screenwriter without success.

Grandage has surrounded himself with a highly skilled craft team, including cinematographer Ben Davis, production designer Mark Digby and costumer Jane Petrie, who give Genius a stylish period look that suggests influences ranging from the paintings of Edward Hopper to the Depression-era images of photographers like Walker Evans. The movie could have gotten by with one or two less shots of busy Fifth Avenue pedestrian traffic outside the iconic Scribner's building. But its evocation of New York during one of the city's defining historic chapters is handsomely textured.

The insurmountable problem, however, is that the story engages only late in the game, once Tom has betrayed his father figure by revising his previous acknowledgment of the role Max played in molding his genius. But perhaps due to the anesthetizing effect of most of what's come before, the central relationship lacks spark and the pathos remains muted. Even scenes that should burst with excitement, such as Tom loosening up sober Max in a Harlem jazz club, are like CPR on a lifeless body.

Hearing accents come and go (Law's is the consistent exception) during the movie's many tedious stretches, you start to wonder if there are no American actors left over a certain age — Linney in an underdeveloped role is the sole homegrown representative among a principal cast of Brits and Australians. You also wonder who on earth the audience will be for this Lionsgate release, opening in the prestige-picture desert of July. But it's hard to fault the actors so much as Grandage and Logan in their choice of subject matter.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Distribution: Lionsgate
Opens: Friday, July 29
Cast: Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Laura Linney, Guy Pearce, Dominic West, Vanessa Kirby, Elaine Caulfield, Lorna Doherty, Eve Bracken, Katya Watson, Makenna McBrierty, Angela Ashton
Production companies: Desert Wolf Productions, MGC
Director: Michael Grandage
Screenwriter: John Logan, based on the book 'Max Perkins: Editor of Genius,' by A. Scott Berg
Producers: James Bierman, Michael Grandage, John Logan
Executive producer: Deepak Nayar, Nik Bower, James J. Bagley, A. Scott Berg, Arielle Tepper Madover, Tim Bevan
Director of photography: Ben Davis
Production designer: Mark Digby
Costume designer: Jane Petrie
Music: Adam Cork
Editor: Chris Dickens
Casting: Jina Jay
Sales: FilmNation Entertainment

No rating, 104 minutes