Entering the cinema, I will admit that I did not have high expectations for the biographical drama Genius, about Thomas Wolfe. Literary biopics tend to consist in the melancholic musings of a world-weary intellectual, almost always shot in sepia – not the most exciting of film genres. A notable exception which comes to mind is the riveting Sylvia, a film narrating Sylvia Plath’s life, although I suspect the main reason behind that film’s allure were the details of Plath’s intriguing personal life, from her tumultuous marriage with fellow literary giant Ted Hughes to her tragic end, rather than the nature of her profession. The act of writing is not particularly captivating to depict on screen, in contrast to other creative endeavours, such as painting or making music. Nor is it the case authors’ lifestyles entail a remarkable degree of excitement. Literary figures do not exactly have a reputation of leading a rock star’s life of exhilarating excess. To my surprise, the film Genius almost dispels the above stereotype.
Michael Grandage’s directorial debut explores the dynamics of the friendship between Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) and his editor, Max Perkins (Colin Firth). From the moment Wolfe strides into Perkins’s office, with his booming voice and hectic presence, the literary editor is at both perplexed and magnetized by Wolfe’s use of sprawling similes and Southern manners. He is the antithesis to Perkins’ reserved demeanour. One’s first impression of Wolfe is that of a flamboyant, garrulous character, with the exotic mannerisms of a creature belonging to an extinct species. As the film progresses, it chips away at this veneer of flamboyancy to reveal a sensitive creature of immense intellect, who possesses a surprising degree of self-awareness for someone so grandiose in his behaviour. In one of the film’s most endearing moments, Wolfe confides in Perkins that despite his seemingly perpetual jovial exterior, it is rare for him to find a true friend like Perkins.
Departing from the norm of slow-paced literary biopics, the narrative in Genius develops at a pace fast enough to keep the viewer’s interest, yet also takes care to emphasise the most critical moments in Wolfe’s career as a writer, namely the publication of Wolfe’s breakthrough novel Look Homeward, Angel and the immense commercial success of Of Time and The River. The film’s linear structure renders it easy to follow and I can honestly say that there was not a moment in the film where my mind wandered off into the dreaded boredom zone. Another strength of the film is that Grandage avoids the temptation of devoting the entire screen time to exploring the labyrinth that comprises Wolfe’s thoughts. Although there is a lot to say about Wolfe’s sources of inspiration, the film’s content adheres to its source material, A Scitt Berg’sthe award-winning book Max Perkins: Editor of Genius.
Although far from dull, Genius lacks the escalation of action leading to a climax. A moment in the film which could be interpreted as some sort of turning point comes near the end, when Wolfe experiences something resembling a revelation, while standing on a windy beach in winter. At that point, it becomes clear that the overarching theme in Genius – the journey of self-discovery – is also the theme pervading all of Wolfe’s autobiographical novels.
Possessing an all-star cast, comprised of Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Laura Linney, Genius features strong performances, especially from Firth and Law, albeit the latter’s portrayal of Wolfe has been criticised in several reviews for being excessively theatrical, in that sense better suited to a stage than a screen. I enjoyed his performance nonetheless, especially Law’s adoption of a Southern drawl for the role.
Genius does not belong to an enticing film genre, nor is the film’s subject matter particularly fascinating. However, Jude Law’s enthusiastic performance highlights the contrast between the personalities of the two main characters and the evolution of a friendship between two individuals of such radically different natures is interesting to watch.