The Page Turner: Genius at Work 

Colin Firth is editor extraordinaire Max Perkins

Who’s the true genius? Editor extraordinaire Max Perkins (portrayed by Colin Firth, left) or Thomas Wolfe (portrayed by Jude Law, right)?

Who’s the true genius? Editor extraordinaire Max Perkins (portrayed by Colin Firth, left) or Thomas Wolfe (portrayed by Jude Law, right)?

Early on in Genius, an unexpected cinema admiration for all-things literary, a young girl peers over her father's shoulder and sees a dense page of words with little punctuation or space.

"That's a very long paragraph, daddy," says the daughter.

"Yes, and it started four pages ago," responds editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth).

It's a funny albeit painful, example of the uneasy relationship between author—in this case, Thomas Wolfe (portrayed with potent vigor by Jude Law)—and editor. In another of Genius' many scenes revealing that professional tension, Wolfe bursts into Perkins' office and pronounces he has finished his latest book. Wolfe then ushers in two laborers, hauling a stacked-to-the-brim crate of handwritten pages. Moments later, a second crate comes in and then a third. Perkins' anxiety builds because he knows all too well only he stands between this heap of Wolfe's ramblings and a possible bestseller. Wolfe was always Perkins' greatest challenge. The writer was notoriously undisciplined and uncompromisingly verbose, always thinking "more" meant "better." Heaven help the editor who had to thrash through Wolfe's adjunct jungle, but it's a fact that the rarely-heralded Perkins wielded his red pencil with the precision of a surgeon, from which literary classics emerged: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, From Here to Eternity by James Jones.

"You might want to read this one. Every other editor turned it down," a colleague tells Perkins before dumping a huge manuscript on his desk.

"Is it any good?" asks Perkins.

"No, but it's unique."

In Perkins' adept hands, the original manuscript, O Lost, became Wolfe's late-1920s literary sensation, Look Homeward, Angel.

Firth embodies Perkins in one of his better performances since his Oscar-winning turn in 2010's The King's Speech. Firth's close-to-the-vest portrayal of the enigmatic Perkins leaves us wanting more, like his working relationships with Fitzgerald and Hemingway, for example, but Genius zeroes in on the Perkins-Wolfe tug-of-war. Wolfe saw Perkins—who had five daughters—as a father figure, but the editor's role of a surrogate parent caused serious friction in both men's families. For Perkins, a lot of burden landed on the shoulders of his wife Louise, portrayed by the under-used Laura Linney. For Wolfe, his drama was a slap in the face to lover Aline Bernstein, portrayed by the overused Nicole Kidman, though Bernstein's story is intriguing: She was a world-class stage designer, 18 years older than Wolfe, married and the mother of two, yet she chose to live in scandal and, to a large degree, in Wolfe's shadow. There are a lot of scenes between Law and Kidman and, while it's fun to see two gorgeous actors chewing up the scenery, the scenes are a bit of a waste and divert the audience from the much more compelling story of the writer-editor relationship.

Genius is a quintessential art-house movie. It celebrates intellectualism and features a particularly strong performance by Firth. It also provides a short but nice taste of Perkins' relationships with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, portrayed by Guy Pearce and Dominic West, respectively. Pearce is especially strong in his performance of a down-on-his-luck Fitzgerald.

I highly recommend Genius. It looks great and honors the art of superior editing. After all, do you think only I wrote this review? To some degree, I did. But make no mistake, dear reader. This, too, has been ably edited.

Now Playing

Genius is not showing in any theaters in the area.

Rated PG-13 · 104 minutes · 2016
Official Site:
Director: Michael Grandage
Producer: Michael Grandage, John Logan, James Bagley, A. Berg, Tim Bevan, Nik Bower, Arielle Madover and Deepak Nayar
Cast: Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Laura Linney, Guy Pearce, Dominic West and Vanessa Kirby
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