How to instill innovation and subversion into a film with several mainstream actors and a traditional British director? Bring back forgotten American writers from the 1920s, and top it up with a twist of friendship. If you are going to tell the same old story and fill it with some clichés, at least find a novel approach. Genius does indeed rely on the performances of Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth, but at least the director pushes them to new extremes.
Genius opens with a typical scene of America living the Depression: a broke writer under the rain. The film, however, quickly challenges the clichéd association between rain and misery and turns precipitation into hope. Thomas Wolf (Jude Law) is about to be discovered by his editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth).
Max Perkins, editor at Scribner’s Sons, is the first one to publish Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce). When a sprawling, chaotic 1,000-page manuscript by an unknown writer named Thomas Wolfe falls into his hands, Perkins is convinced he has discovered a literary genius. As an editor, he has to cut words and transform a huge number of pages into manageable reading. How to respect individuality and genius and still imprint quality in a book? Colin Firth explains: “His intention was to remain invisible”. Genius succeeds at uncovering the work of an invisible man to a very broad audience, possibly inspiring new generations to reclaim the valued of unsung geniuses.
It is not the first time Jude Law has to speak in a different accent. He did it in his previous feature, Black Sea (Kevin MacDonald, 2014) in which he plays a Scottish Captain. He listened to recordings of people from the same area and particularly studied how to pronounce the vowels in order to recreate the character. Guy Pearce says that in order to impersonate someone famous you must conduct extensive research, and to understand the characters personality and psychology, but it eventually gets to a point where “you have to follow your guts”.
Wolf became a resounding success and grew increasingly paranoid. He experienced what he wrote about at the coalface instead of observing it from a distance, and the often paid high price for that. Jude Law delivers a performance so explosive that it is almost un-British. The chemistry between two very different personalities is possibly also their leitmotif.
Genius premiered at 66th Berlin Film Festival this week, and DMovies live at the event right now.