Festival Review: Genius (2016)


Documenting the professional relationship between Thomas Wolfe and his editor, Michael Grandage’s Genius reveals the irreconcilable nature of creation and analysis.

Against Nature

by Mark Wilshin


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Depicting the unusually intimate (and non-sexual) relationship between two men, Michael Grandage’s Genius uncovers the literary sensation Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) and the publication of his first and second novels Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time And The River under the blue pencil of Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth). Wolfe is a Southern Caliban with a desire to capture life in a stream of words that just flow out of him, while Perkins is a family man with a genius for putting the dramaturgy into a novel. It’s a mutually enriching experience for both men, as Tom’s bounty of words is whittled down into a “marketable bestseller” by Perkins, while Wolfe drags his upright editor into a jazz bar to experience the improvised rhythms of the South and let himself go. Whether Jude Law fully incorporates this life force that leaves all who meet him under his spell, is questionable. And Genius contains a theatrical haze that feels somehow out of place on the screen – the haunting a capella refrain of Flow Gently, Sweet Afton for example might feel at home within the imaginative space of the stage, but here comes across as overwrought. Both Perkins and Wolfe are both genii, but neither alone – each complementing each other like two halves of the human brain – the unbounded compulsion to create and the analytical force to sculpt and improve. Engaging, enlightening and quietly affecting, Genius succeeds on its intricate and precise script and its unadulterated performances. And as an exhortation to live life to its fullest and against one’s own grain, Grandage’s film reminds us to cherish those relationships in which we find fulfilment. And that’s no small act of genius.

Genius is now showing at the Berlin Film Festival

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