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by Flo Dwek

To the filmmakers among us, a loaded question: would you be tempted to make a film about a book editor who sits in his office 24/7, diligently turning piles upon piles of an author’s brilliant scribblings into a popular masterpiece?

No thanks–no audience for that, you say? Where’s the action, the mayhem, the sex? Where, for that matter, is the drama?  Where, indeed.

In the astounding new film, GENIUS, the prominent book editor is Maxwell Perkins, his dreary little office is in Scribners and Sons, New York, circa 1929-1938, and the stream-of-consciousness manuscripts awaiting their transformations into best sellers are penned by none other than one of America’s greatest novelists, Thomas Wolfe.

So…no car chases. No sex scenes. But a whole lot of drama–in the beautifully rendered artistic and philosophical struggle between the ultra calm and collected Perkins (Colin Firth at his most dignified) and the high strung, manic persona of Wolfe (a feverish Jude Law, complete with Southern drawl).

Their story pivots and teeters on the heels of two devoted women in their lives–Nicole Kidman as Wolfe’s angry lover and benefactor, and Laura Linney as Perkins’s  long-suffering wife, mother to their six young daughters.

Enough grit and allure to make you wish you had thought of tackling the script yourself?

Well, the esteemed playwright and filmmaker, Michael Grandage, beat you to it with his stunning adaptation of Max Perkins: the Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg.
(Screenplay by John Logan.)

Evocative cinematography and moody, sepia- and pale-toned interiors take us back to Depression era New York, with grimy catwalks and back alleys, pricey restaurants and jazz clubs hazy with smoke and the sly rhythms of tenor sax.

The great cast plays every line and nuanced gesture to the hilt.  Colin Firth, as a stiff and brooding suit in a hat, is at his best when he masterfully prods Wolfe to get his copious writing down to its bare bones. So much so, that it raises the question of who is truly the genius in the relationship–the unfettered author or the prudent editor.

Jude Law dazzles with his range of alcohol induced rantings, manic scribblings in the wee hours, and wildly emotional outpourings on the meaning of art, music and life.

Kidman is sublime as just this side of unhinged, with piercing looks that radiate with melodrama and resentment. “I’ve been edited!” she exclaims miserably at one point, knowing that Wolfe has cast her aside.

It is a fitting line in a  film full of compelling thoughts on what it means to make original art; to edit, transform and package it; and ultimately, to live one’s life authentically.

GENIUS opens in theaters nationwide June 10.

GENIUS was executive produced by Arielle Tepper Madover 

Click here to read an interview with A. Scott Berg, author of the book Max Perkins and the Art of the Genius, which inspired this film. Transcription courtesy of Word Wizards, Inc.