Starring Colin Firth, Jude Law, and Nicole Kidman
Director Michael Grandage
Writer(s) John Logan (screenplay) and A. Scott Berg (book ‘Max Perkins: Editor of Genius’)
Genre Biography | Drama
Release Date June 10, 2016
Filming Location Paramount Studios, Hollywood, California, USA
Parental Guidance PG-13 for thematic elements and suggestive content
IMDB Rating 6.5
Synopsis: When yet-to-be-published author Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) decides to keep his appointment with Scribner’s editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth), he assumes he is walking in for yet another rejection. Little does he know of Perkins’s penchant for discovering new writers, many of whom he has already raised from obscurity to award-winning success. Perkins informs Wolfe that his novel, which is eventually titled “Look Homeward, Angel”, has been selected for publication but under one condition – that the manuscript is trimmed down from its staggering 1,100 pages to something cost-effective and purchasable. Although initially reluctant to see the red-inked knife be taken to his poetic prose, Wolfe agrees to the bargain and Perkins, as per his MO, actively mentors Wolfe towards editing the story into its final form. Wolfe’s reward is a true friend in Perkins and critical acclaim for his debut novel. However, even as the bond between editor and author continues to grow stronger, one where it advances into the home of each, it does not traverse without contention, as Perkins continues to challenge Wolfe to forgo his grandiose and write with greater economy. Moreover, Perkins is warned time and again by his wife Louise (Laura Linney), other literary charges such as F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) and Earnest Hemmingway (Dominic West), and even chief nemesis Wolfe’s mistress Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman) about Wolfe’s proclivity to use and dispose of those who help advance his career. Perkins, though, dismisses the assertions as an inability to endure Wolfe’s artistic temperament – until Wolfe himself begins to prove the assessment correct when the belligerent author starts resenting Perkins for his level contribution to his success.
Experience: It goes without saying that I was drawn to this movie due to Colin Firth’s presence. When I learned that it was a biographical drama on the editor who introduced authors such as Fitzgerald and Hemmingway to their readers, I was further intrigued. To date, I don’t know of any other movie that focuses on the life of a book editor and, as a writer, I felt I owed it to myself to watch it. Like some extra credit homework one does as a precaution for any potential failed test.
I didn’t even know about Max Perkins until this movie. Why would I? If a book does well, authors get all the glory, even though, once upon a time, any form of literature would not see the light of day without some editor signing its ticket. An editor doesn’t even get their contributions acknowledged in print unless the author does the honorable. On the copyright page, it’s the author’s name and publishing house that receives the billing. After all, the manuscript hits the desk of so many different editors for copy checks, proofreading, developmental upgrades, etc. on its way to the press that it would be an odd listing to feature everyone on that little space. But what about the person who discovers a particular work and backs it up against all arguments? Meet Max Perkins. [I’m not sure how faithful an account it is of the original man – though most history buffs claim the movie is principally the real deal – the Max Perkins on screen actually claimed it’s ideal for the editor to go unacknowledged; his words were to the effect that the reader should get an impression that they are reading the book in its original form.]
I’m not naïve enough to believe that all editors are the self-sacrificial heart-and-soul-gamblers that Perkins was. He had insight and was willing to wager his professional reputation for the unknown young writers he believed in and it obviously paid off in these amazing books – though, from the movie, we can see the time and psychological effort it cost him was exceptional. Yet, he seemed to revel in the demands of his undertakings in these temperamental wrecks of egos that he counseled into writing best-sellers. And I loved how Firth brought that out with the quiet grace and effusive sincerity of his acting. [BTW, I discovered he has the most elegant wrist through this movie. Me, bona fide bad-boy chaser go gaga every time over his understated charm and courtesy. And now the wrist?]
Back to his harnessed talent, as always, Firth managed to make the role he plays feel multidimensional, radiating off the screen with his subtle expressions and dialogue delivery. Despite spending most of the movie in quiet reflection, it is a pleasure just to watch the wheels churning behind those lambent eyes or the fleeting smirk that plays hide-and-seek on his firm mouth from self-deprecation or as a result of some study he is yet unwilling to make public. He makes Max Perkins’s skin his own, becoming a man who does not aim to impress but to simply do right by the talented writers he is responsible for.
Playing opposite him, Jude Law does a bang-on job of portraying a self-serving romantic engrossed in astounding everyone he comes into direct or indirect contact with simply because he is determined to rise above the meager upbringing he was afforded. [Disclaimer: I generally don’t like Law] Wolfe was notorious for writing gargantuan tomes that Perkins had to help chisel away to a fraction of their original size because Wolfe believed his writing was beyond criticism and undeserving of revisions. Thanks to Law, Wolfe once again crackles and pops in every breakthrough of his life, trying to overpower Perkins’s more diminutive disposition but finding a formidable challenger nevertheless. Together, they faithfully portray the almost resolute -father-prodigal-son combination that the original partnership was noted for. It’s not easy bringing movies on writing come to life like so many other art forms are accessible through visual representation but, by golly, Firth and Law made it.
Which bring me to the women in the mix. I really enjoyed watching the juxtaposition between the two couples, Max-Louise and Tom-Aline. On the one side, you have a married couple with a gaggle of daughters that have fostered a kind of understanding that allows each member of the pack to flourish in their own way, like the many limbs of a well-rooted tree that is sure of individual and collective fruition. They are ready to welcome other people into their fold just as a tree would provide shelter to strangers just because it can. On the other side, you have a live-in couple mired in an extra-marital affair who, at one point, forsook all family and friends to be with one another and, now, do not appreciate distractions in their personal agendas. If one strays far from the other, the other claws and cankers until he/she returns. Louise’s personality perfectly harmonizes that of Max’s as Aline’s personality pairs Tom’s. It’s selfless devotion vs. selfish passion. And so the Perkins’s generosity is reflected in how Max works with his authors and the Aline-Tom egocentricity spills onto how Tom greets Max’s ministrations. The conflict within the subplot effectively bolsters that of the main plot, and the following dialogue from Max Perkins perfectly encompasses the artistic partnership between the editor and author that was the heart of this biopic:
Maxwell Evarts Perkins: God help anyone who loves you, Tom. Because for all your talk and all your millions of beautiful words, you haven’t the slightest idea of what it means to be alive. To look into another person’s eyes and ache for him. I hope someday you will. And then maybe all your words will be worth five of Scott’s.
Recommendation: I wouldn’t say it is the best movie Colin Firth has acted in but his acting is as immaculate as ever, with great contribution from the rest of the cast. And knowing that the character sketches and plot respectfully tries to remain true to the original people and events, this is a good biopic to watch for all editors and authors. And quite enjoyable too.