Berlin Film Festival: West End maestro Michael Grandage makes his film debut with this star-studded biopic of literary legend Max Perkins. But perhaps it should have stayed on the page

The first thing we see in Genius, the film debut of West End theatre maestro Michael Grandage, is a red pencil at work, scratching with abandon through the galley proofs of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

The year is 1929, and the pencil’s in the clutches of Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth), then editor at Scribner’s of New York, and a legendary figure who shepherded key works by Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald to publication.

John Logan’s script, based on a 1978 book called Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg, narrows its focus to one specific relationship in the man’s life, which begins with the daunting manuscript of something called O Lost being hefted onto his desk.

Under Perkins’s supervision, this experimental behemoth would lose 300 pages from its original 1,100, undergo a title change to Look Homeward, Angel, and launch the career of the North Carolina-born writer Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), who would find in Perkins, until their collaboration fell apart, an ally like no other.

“He has a genius for friendship,” says Fitzgerald (a sparingly used Guy Pearce) of Perkins – a quality that Wolfe, as this film presents him, took for granted. Their squabbling over the scope and shape of Wolfe’s subsequent work, and the author’s selfish and erratic behaviour, led to a brutal estrangement which was barely healed before Wolfe’s early death in 1938.

The puzzlement of Genius, especially given all the star names dangling off it like Christmas baubles, is why the Perkins-Wolfe alliance doesn’t exert a more direct fascination, or communicate more of what it clearly wants to say about the twinned arts of writing and living.

Grandage has stuffed his film with A-list acting talent, co-opting his Photograph 51 star Nicole Kidman to play Wolfe's depressive, controlling mistress, Aline Bernstein, and Laura Linney as Perkins’s wife, Louise: both frustrated to different degrees by the all-consuming nature of the two men’s endeavours.

These modestly showcased turns feel like called-in favours, especially Kidman’s too-brittle sketch, and Dominic West’s one-scene cameo as Hemingway is hearty and agreeable but over in a flash.

Colin Firth and Jude Law in Michael Grandage's Genius Credit: Pinewood Films No. 12 Ltd./Marc Brenner

What’s left is the faith Wolfe inspired in Perkins and vice versa, and the film’s main problem is failing to make this convince as the two-way street it surely was. Firth’s acting is stripped back, simple, and resolutely sensible: even if the film overdoes his character’s unerring eye for purple prose, he’s canny at resisting needless flourishes of his own, while gracefully delivering the scenes with Perkins’s five daughters. He hardly puts a foot wrong, but has a much easier task than the one confronting Law.

If you’ve seen enough of the latter’s performances, even his best ones, you’ll know certain habits by now – an impatient way of jerking his head abruptly to profile, hand on hip, and sharply gesturing sideways, or pulling a devilish shark’s grin and tipping his brow down menacingly.

It’s all very well to present Wolfe as a stomping, hellraising, narcissistic word-slinger – he was very much a forerunner of the Beat poets in all these respects – but you have to wonder if turning every Law mannerism up to 11 was quite the way to capture his essence.

It’s not hard to spot Logan’s favourite ideas in here, either: “I’ve been EDITED!”, Kidman’s jilted Aline exclaims in Perkins’s office, to which he retorts, “You’re overwriting this scene,” when she pulls a pistol out. Or try, “Human beings aren’t fiction!” Where’s a Perkins when a Logan needs him? A more imaginative spin on this friendship, and it might have flown as arch comedy, perhaps, but Grandage has chosen a visual approach which rules that right out.

All the blaring trumpets and martinis the director can fling us as jazzy background don’t save the film from being very unappealingly lit indeed - full of drab, grey interiors, it's halfway to monochrome. When three crates arrive holding Wolfe’s most bloated ever manuscript, you chuckle at the chore ahead; but you can't help but share Perkins's pain.