Movie Review: Genus (2016)
By Bree Donovan
Writer: John Logan
Director: Michael Grandage
Producer: A. Scott Berg
…A stone, a leaf an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf a door. And of all the forgotten faces
Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb, we did not know our mother’s face; from the prison of her flesh we come to the unspeakable an uncommunicable prison of this earth.
Which one of us has known his bother? Which one of us has looked into his father’s heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?
O waste of loss, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this most weary unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When?
O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.
When I first read these words years ago, I thought I could never, ever be a writer! My God! How could anyone write anything vaguely close to the beauty, longing and sincerity of this amazing paragraph penned by Thomas Wolfe? One paragraph in a book of 495 words, give or take depending on which edition you choose. The rest of the novel, Look Homeward, Angel is an overabundance of lyrical musings, humorous recollections and meanderings of insanely lovely words tempting as a country river on a hot, summer day. If Zeus deigned to grant me the mastery of the human heart to express in the written word; I would choose the talents of one writer, Thomas Wolfe. But, I am just as happy to write about him.
Needless to say when I stumbled upon the 2016, BBC production, Genius during a ‘free-trial’ offered by my cable provider, I was ecstatic. When I noted that Jude Law was playing the role of Thomas Wolf; a tall, rambling, excitable, larger than life young man from Ashville, North Carolina, I was less enthused. As if to add insult to injury, Colin Firth was cast in the role of editor and all around genuinely decent gentleman, Maxwell Perkins. Well, at least Nicole Kidman and Laura Linney had supporting roles which comforted me. Not that I have any personal beef with Law or Firth, I simply haven’t enjoyed many of the productions they have made. I mean, Jude Law as “The Pope?” That’s a stretch for me!
I am forever grateful to both actors who gave extraordinary performances. They created a film which could and should be shown in high schools and universities. It’s a movie that I have watched more times than I care to cop to! Where Wolfe’s writing is grandiose and verbose, the movie about his life is simple and straight forward. You don’t need to do much when the story you are telling commences during the exceptional time in American history when literary greats such as: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe were each being published by Charles Scribner & Sons under the dedicated, corrective pen of Maxwell Perkins. It’s also a chronicle of the profession and personal struggles of these men with their craft and in their lives. For some reason which has always escaped me, most writers from any era are played as heavy drinkers, smokers and swearers. But, it rings true in the case of the above mentioned novelists.
Wolfe and Perkins develop an adoptive father and son type relationship while wading through piles and piles of paper. Wolfe brought Perkins bundles of a handwritten manuscript (which would later become his second successful novel, Of time and the River) filling up several steamer trunks. Any aspiring writer can identify with Wolfe’s visceral response to Perkin’s red-lining many sections of the young man’s work. There is a humorous exchange when an exasperated Wolfe yells at his mentor; “Some stories are s’possed to be long, ya know? Thank Christ Tolstoy never worked with you. We’d have that great novel, War and NOTHING!” This is an issue which looms larger as Wolfe becomes regarded as a genius, but cannot abide some who said his work would be nothing without Maxwell Perkin’s editorial skills. The question being, is the relationship of writer and editor one that could be crippling to the writer? Perkins remarks that this is what keeps an editor up at night. He concedes to Wolfe in another scene. “Who am I to say your book wasn’t right the way it was? Yes, War and Peace, not just war.”
The bitter sweetness of this film is the way in which both men’s lives mirror one another in significant ways, but also diverge in the same heartbreaking way. Wolfe puts his writing above all else. He is forever angering and disappointing his lover, Aline Bernstein (played by Nicole Kidman) who jettisoned husband and children to support and assist Wolfe in his success. He does not see the relationship as a quid-pro-quo. Similarly, Perkins, husband to the intellectual, Louise Saunders (Laura Linney) who fancies herself a playwright and devoted mother to five daughters also puts his work above family.
The two men diverge when push comes to shove and are asked to step up to the plate by their respective partners. Perkins realizes his first priority must be to his family, whereas Wolfe views this as not being genuinely ALIVE and free. Perkins mourns the inevitable event when Wolfe decides he must prove to himself he is a writer all on his own. The viewer will mourn this particular part of the film as well. We are treated to the trials, hi jinks, heated debates and deep love Wolfe and Perkins share. It is painful to see the two parting ways. But in a movie which stays close to the real life story, we are also treated to a satisfying and poignant conclusion.
The saddest fact is that Thomas Wolfe up until the not too recent past was on the syllabus of almost every college level English Literature course. He was considered on par with James Joyce. Today, however, it seems that as with the budgets for the Arts, Wolfe is being unfairly and idiotically cut from the classes where he once was a staple. This truly is robbing students of an American treasure. It is this writer’s hope that you, dear readers will at least watch the movie, Genius, and be inspired to grab yourself a copy of a Thomas Wolfe novel. Why not start at the beginning with his autobiographical, Look Homeward, Angel. I wager just was I was delightfully surprised at Law and Firth’s ability to play such complex characters with real heart, you will wonder why the hell you haven’t read this genius of a writer before!
Trailer for Genius
Friends of Thomas Wolfe Webpage
The Friends of Thomas Wolfe are the membership arm of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Advisory Committee. This group supports the mission of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial State Historic Site as a nonprofit organization incorporated in the State of North Carolina and designated a 501 c3 tax exempt charitable organization.