Colin Firth and Jude Law. As editor Maxwell Perkins and writer Thomas Wolfe. Picture: STER KINEKOR

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The eminent biographer Claire Tomalin wrote an entire book about Nelly Ternan, Charles Dickens’s mistress, condemned by the mores and straitlaced reportage of her times to never be seen with the novelist. Ternan’s story is only now slowly emerging.

This oppression is the essence of Genius, a US-British semi-biopic of another species of invisibility — that of the editor, through whom a writer’s words are made acceptable to the public and the critics. A book editor, reporter, subeditor, proofreader ... the trade was once held in high repute, the masters’ names never proclaimed in social media or celebrity blogs.

This is changing. Genius deals mainly with incidents in the life of Maxwell Perkins (Firth), senior editor at Scribner’s, to whom much of the creation of the last-century American canon is accorded. Among his clients — or fellow-workers — were Scott Fitzgerald (Pearce), Ernest Hemingway (West) and Thomas Wolfe (not to be confused with Tom Wolfe). Wolfe neglects his young mistress and supporter Aline (Kidman) to scratch out thousands of words a day while Perkins ignores his family, burrowing into texts. The cost was actual, lived life.

Up front we have the young, brash Wolfe (Law), whose books took years to write and arrived in crates, and who finally refused to trim and edit, which led to his breach with Perkins. He died at 37 of cerebral tuberculosis and is not much read now. As Aline accuses him, he used her for his first bestseller (Look Homeward, Angel) and would in time leave Perkins as well, his editor’s labours complete on Of Time and the River.

What the average viewer witnesses is a composite portrait of the whims of fame. I found most moving Pearce as Fitzgerald, whose mad wife Zelda (Kirby) leads him into drink, sterility and despair. He too died young, yet within a few years The Great Gatsby was resurrected as one of the century’s great novels. Hemingway turned into a parody. Any final judgment on Wolfe hovers.

The film does have a mordant preoccupation with failure, and what leads to failure: single-minded obsession. Sections are as taut as a thriller. When Wolfe (also frequently drunk) boasts that he is a greater writer than James Joyce, one senses the ancient Grecian approach of Nemesis — those whom the gods would destroy they first make mad.

Such corollaries lift the film out of what many consider its corrosive focus on what is swiftly passing us all by: the physical book and its manifest role in creating our memories.

Is it gloomy? Many scenes make one ache because the downward path is easily discernible. To the intensity of a few interlocked characters is added the cinematography, almost black and white for the New York of the Depression-era 1930s. A brief irony occurs when Wolfe sees queues of broken men waiting for food and indicates to Perkins that he had not seen this clearly before. So much for writing a novel bigger than the world.

The men were reconciled in the end. In a letter to his editor, Wolfe wrote: “I shall always think of you and feel about you the way it was that Fourth of July day three years ago when you met me at the boat, and we went out on the café on the river and had a drink and later went on top of the tall building, and all the strangeness and the glory and the power of life and of the city was below.” The words struggle to emerge.

You need never have read any of their books to recognise these as real but tormented human beings.

Directed by Michael Grandage, script by John Logan from A Scott Berg’s National Book Award Winner
Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Dominic West, Guy Pearce, Vanessa Kirby