Greetings again from the darkness. Most biopics provide a look into the life of someone who had an impact. If after watching this film, you are confused about just who the main subject is, that’s understandable. It’s rare to find a biopic about two people … a duo biopic … but that’s what the film directorial debut of noted British theatre director Michael Grandage presents. Novelist Thomas Wolfe and editor Max Perkins are forever linked in history, and the screenplay by John Logan (Oscar nominated for Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo) shows us just how intertwined these two lives became. It’s based on A Scott Berg’s 1978 book “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius”.
It’s 1929 and writer Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) is tapping his foot as he smokes a cigarette while standing on the sidewalk staring at Scribner’s Sons Publishing building in New York City. A moment later he is bursting into an office whilst unleashing a rapid-fire blast of words to which our ears can barely keep pace. Taking in the verbal fireworks is an elegantly quiet and eternally hatted man behind the desk. With only the phrase “Mr. Wolfe, we intend to publish your book”, editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth) manages to silence the bombastic writer for a few stunned seconds … mostly the only time we witness this.
And so begins not so much a friendship as a professional dependency and surrogate father/son relationship. Thomas Wolfe was other-worldly prolific in his ability to craft words into stories. He was also an exceedingly creative workaholic and alcoholic who found his way to Perkins via North Carolina and Harvard. Yes, it’s the same Max Perkins who was editor to such literary luminaries as Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald.
Seen as personality polar opposites, we also get to witness the differences within the personal lives of the two gentlemen. Both have strong women at home. Mr. Perkins’ wife Louise is played by Laura Linney, and their 5 daughters are smitten with the outlandish behavior and stories of Mr. Wolfe as he visits for dinner. In an unusual twist for the times, an older married woman Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), was Wolfe’s lover and supporter … even through his carousing and endless nights of work with Perkins.
The red pencil of Perkins is as ever-present as the hat on his head, as he slashes and burns through paragraph after paragraph and page after page of Wolfe’s writing in order to fashion an end product that is “marketable”. The result was Wolfe’s first novel “Look Homeward, Angel” … even the title was changed by Perkins. The editing sequences and Perkins’ directive for “Big story, fewer words” have us (and Perkins himself) questioning the role of an editor. Do they make the story better or just different? Is marketable more important than the original words of the author? It’s a legitimate point of discussion, as it’s doubtful anyone told da Vinci that his Mona Lisa should have a bigger smile, or Mozart that The Magic Flute should have fewer notes. Are book editors underappreciated or overly critical? In the case of the second Wolfe novel “Of Time and the River”, Perkins reduced the work by not hundreds, but rather thousands of pages … all for the goal of marketability. And it turned out to be Wolfe’s best-selling book.
The best scene in the film is also the most insightful. Wolfe drags the always dignified Perkins to a late night jazz club, and with the help of the band, displays in song how Wolfe’s brain kicks into writing mode. It’s a moment of enlightenment for Perkins, as well as us viewers. Law’s Wolfe is a whirlwind of words and prose and those in his path are simply overwhelmed by the enormity of his way. In what feels like a touch of name-dropping, the film tacks on a couple of scenes with Hemingway (Dominic West) and Fitzgerald ( ). Though the scenes are a bit heavy-handed, they do serve as a reminder of what terrific writing came from this era, as well as the impact of editor Perkins.
It’s a little disconcerting to see the leads in an America tale played by Brits and Aussies, but there is no denying the effectiveness of Firth, Law, et al. It’s truly a tale of two geniuses, and Aline was correct … after Wolfe, there was “a great hush”.
watch the trailer: