Michael Grandage’s Genius is a deeply romantic film, albeit the kind one rarely sees on screen: a romance of the written word. Centering on the relationship between Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), one of America’s greatest (and woefully underrated) writers, and his famous literary editor, Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth), the film recognizes the publication of Wolfe’s masterpieces, Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River, as having been impossible without the tumult of their relationship—or that of the Great Depression. Genius locates the prominent themes of Wolfe’s novels—the never-ending search for one’s spiritual father, the destruction of boundaries between our internal and external worlds, prose as the superlative medium for capturing the human experience—in the relationship between these two wholly different men connected by their love for the sublime power of the word.
In cinematizing the austere romance of writing, Grandage aptly employs a muted visual palette, emphasizing the drabness of the outside world for men so consumed with passion for the endless possibilities of an internal world generated by words. Grandage, an accomplished theater director, stresses the mannered, performative quality by which these literati express their desires and frustrations, intertwined as all of their lives are with the merciless rigors of polished prose. Playing a man defined by his adherence to the principle of literary brevity, Firth is suitably restrained as the somewhat puritanical Perkins, who allows his face to convey meanings beyond his scrupulously self-edited utterances. While not as physically imposing as Wolfe was in real life (he stood six and a half feet tall), Law compensates for his smaller frame with a theatrical performance that fills up the screen, bursting with the manic energy of a man who knew no filter between thought and expression.
Curiously, this quintessentially American story about two men who helped define our national literature is populated with a cast of largely British and Australian actors. Rather than compromising the film’s verisimilitude, their foreignness captures Wolfe’s outsider status in the era’s New York-centric literary scene. While the author’s Rabelaisian gregariousness is shown to be deeply individualistic, his North Carolina roots nevertheless stand out in sharp contrast with the mid-Atlantic accents and well-bred reserve of Perkins, the famous editor’s irrepressibly bourgeois wife, Louise (Laura Linney), and author F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce), depicted as a sad and broken man who never lost his gentlemanly manners and quiet decency. Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), Wolfe’s Jewish lover, further emphasizes his outsider status, as the film contrasts their highly theatrical public rows with the Perkins’s private quarrels, which are quietly conducted away from prying eyes.
Genius makes a convincing argument for viewing Wolfe’s work as a product of the excess and exuberance of the 1920s, his celebration of the gargantuan life force of the individual perfectly captured by the film in a scene where Wolfe has several men deliver the 5,000-page manuscript of his latest novel to Perkins’s office in a seemingly endless series of boxes and crates. While both Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) and Fitzgerald imply that such boundless individualism is no longer appropriate during the Great Depression, the film suggests that Wolfe’s irrepressible accumulation of words was a kind of never-ending prayer of benediction to the vast, infinite pleasures and possibilities of the American experience. The Walt Whitman of prose, Wolfe saw himself and his nation as one endless body, coterminous and infinite, and his quixotic mission to encapsulate America in his novels was a testament to the fire and energy that made the country what it was and would be again after his untimely death in 1938, on the eve of the nation’s resurgence.