Jude Law (The Grand Budapest Hotel) as Thomas Wolfe and Colin Firth (Dorian Gray) as Max Perkins are a formidable pairing in this very engrossing film. Law is a terrifying storm of ideas and words on screen that Firth’s character recognizes as unique and who he brings into his life to nurture. While there is a lot of fact to this story, it is the emotional journey of the friendship of these two men as much as their impact on the world of letters that is absorbing to watch.
More broadly, Genius tackles the literal concept of its title head-on through the lives of this writer and his editor. It asks: What is genius and what is art and who creates it, the artist or, in this case, his editor? The debate still rages today, and no good writer dismisses the value of a good editor… but that still doesn’t answer the question of whose art is it anyway? Would that art exist without one or the other? Though the ideas driving the tale are cerebral, the story remains decidedly personal.
Nicole Kidman (The Family Fang), Guy Pearce (Equals), and Dominic West (Pride) round out the families and cast with Laura Linney (Mr. Holmes) as the sole American among Aussies and Brits playing Firth’s wife. Kidman and Linney are both in the periphery of the main men. How each of them deals with that truth, and how their respective men respond is an important chunk of the tensions in the movie. Both deliver strong performances. Pearce and West, as Fitzgerald and Hemingway respectively, are a necessary balance to Law’s Wolfe and to better understand Perkin’s world. Neither is weak, but neither character is more than mirror for the rest of the plot, though obviously bigger-than-life characters out of history.
Grandage, better known to stage than screen, took Logan’s (Skyfall) script as his first film to direct. His confidence in the new medium is obvious and the result, I suspect, will lead to more offerings down the road. Interestingly, while classic literature by definition should transcend geographic boundaries, there is something ironic in the fact that this tale of two of the greatest modern American men of letters is portrayed by an almost entirely foreign cast. Make of that what you will, but it adds an odd and sharp taste to the story when you let the fact intrude.
Grandage and Logan dance above and around a lot of the realities of that time, but probably not around the lives of those we are focused on. The world was unraveling at the edges of these insulated men who meet around the time of the 1929 market crash and the growing storm that would become WWII. You can see it creep in at the periphery, but it remains as fuel for their use rather than impacting their lives.
One of the aspects of this film that is so interesting is that you can keep diving deeper into it after the initial viewing to ask other questions and consider other issues. But, not to worry, there is more than enough to keep you interested even without that path, but it points to the density that this film was able to compress into a tale of two men’s friendship.