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Berlin: 'Genius' starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth

 Amir Soltani is covering the Berlin International Film Festival, TFE's first time at Berlinale! Here is his take on Michael Grandage's Genius.

Berlinale is known for inviting one or two Hollywood pictures to the festival every year to add glamour to the sprawling selection of mostly arthouse curios. One of those films in this year’s edition was Michael Grandage’s first feature as a director, Genius. A period piece based on a true story, the film came to the festival with high expectations, given the distribution deal with Lionsgate already in place, and the pedigree of everyone involved, including thrice Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan, and Oscar winners Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman in the cast. But this was all before the film was screened and faced walkouts and unintentional laughs.

Maxwell Perkins (Firth) was the editor and invisible hand behind some of the biggest American masterpieces of literature in the 1920s, including novels by Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pierece). Perkins is a family man, living in an expansive estate with his wife Louise (Laura Linney) and five daughters. As one would expect of the editor responsible for taming wild characters such as Hemingway and, eventually, Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), Perkins is a gentleman of the highest order, calm and gentle, but serious all the same. [More...]

Perkins' straight manner is reflected in his perfectly tailored suits, a fact that the film cares to repeatedly emphasize several times early on as he gets on or off the train in New York City, within a generic, dull set-up that has appeared in many other period films in New York: steam in the air in the train stations, crowds of men walking in long shots all looking the same in dapper suits.

Genius is filled with these familiar visual cues. In fact, it is hardly possible to envision a film less enticing or uninspired than this in its visual construct. The only stylistic decision that doesn’t appear entirely borrowed from a slew of similar films is the faded out colour palette and the intensely bright lighting, both of which work to the film's detriment. Though the unfortunately titled Genius is about an author influenced by jazz music, is set in the 1920s New York City and contains repeated references to ‘The Great Gatsby’, it is curious that the first words that come to mind about the film are "dreary" and "anemic".

Wolfe’s massive manuscript arrives at Perkins’s office after all major publishers reject it out of hand. Perkins sees the value in the text and begins the process of shaping the book into coherence. With the success of this book, ‘Look Homeward, Angel’, Wolfe becomes even bolder, turning a manuscript so large that several men have to carry the boxes into Perkins’s office. But as Tom and Max spend more time at the editor's room, entangled in the years-long process of reshaping this second novel, both men become distant from their homes, a fact that puts significant strain on their personal lives. While Max finds it difficult to come to terms with the turn of events, Tom plunges deeper into his writing and becomes increasingly cruel.

To portray Wolfe’s brash cockiness, Law decides to play the character with as much physical enthusiasm as he can muster; and he has arguably never been so awful in any film before. Overplaying the character’s animated demeanour and manic energy to the point of caricature, Law’s outlandish, hammy performance falls into a repetitive rhythm from which he can never escape after the first scene. Yet, Law delivers the worst performance in the film only by the smallest of margins, for there is also Nicole Kidman. It is reasonable to point out that Logan’s screenplay treats her character – stage designer Aline Bernstein, who has left husband and family to be with Wolfe – so poorly that it becomes virtually impossible to deliver a performance resembling anything other than parody, but it is still Kidman who wins the film’s loudest unintentional laugh as Aline pulls out a gun in what is meant to be one of the most intense moments in the movie. One can describe Aline’s jealousy about Tom’s admiration for Max as, at best, irrational and, at worst, crazed; nevertheless, it’s a grossly misogynistic depiction that is not helped by Kidman’s tone-deaf performance.

In the end, only Colin Firth escapes this mess with any measure of dignity, with a poised performance that, while similar to many of his previous works, is at least significantly superior to everything going on around him. If there is one thing Genius can take solace in, it’s the benevolence of the festival’s programmers who have managed to find another prestige picture so bad, it makes Grandage’s film look like an artistic triumph, but we’ll get to that one tomorrow.

Previous Berlinale Reviews: L'Avenir, Being 17Fire At SeaHedi and Midnight Special

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Reader Comments (23)

Amir - Ouch, reading this makes me wince with pain. Favourite actors like Jude Law, and Nicole Kidman giving bad performances is distressing. What a disappointment for all.
The worst part is that I trust your judgement so it probably is a bad film.

February 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Oh wow. This sounds like a mess. But now I really want to watch this.

February 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRenton

....I mean, damn, can Nic catch a break? It'd be nice to hear about her being a part of a great movie once in a while. The last Nic movie I truly enjoyed was The Paperboy and that was totally ridiculous.

February 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck.

Goodness me, I really really hope Nicole has a hit with either Lion or Big Little Lies. Big Little Lies is what I'm most excited about as the book is perfect and Celeste is a brilliant character who Kidman should nail, but good grief she needs a hit now.

Something, anything - Paddington was a huge box office success (But I don't think she had much to do with it) and she was brilliant in the Paperboy but since then she has made terrible terrible decisions in film.

I love her beyond words, when she is on fire, she's on fire. When she misses however, she really misses. She needs to vanish and reappear with some amazing project and be a little more fussy about what she chooses.

I admire her though, her nerve and relentless work ethic are unbeatable.

February 16, 2016 | Unregistered Commentermorganb

I'm surprised because both the playlist and the film stage gave it B
and they praised the actors.

February 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJulie

@Julie - I think it was Indiewire's review that talked about it being an either you'll love it or hate it (re the acting) and that Jude Law's performance will have reviewers using as many references to ham as possible but they liked it? They appreciated what he was trying to do but acknowledged others wouldn't.

February 16, 2016 | Unregistered Commentermorganb

Too bad. I like stories about writers, although when this was first announced, I thought it odd to cast a predominantly British cast for a very American story. Maybe that's why The House of the Spirits failed so miserably as a film because they didn't cast a single Chilean in a lead role? But, with great actors, it really shouldn't matter, or should it?

February 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPam

LadyEdith- I'm curious to hear your opinion once you come around to it.

Julie- I'm as surprised as you are by their ratings. The people around me in the cinema thought it was equally painful. And the few critics I spoke with after the film were all pretty unanimous on its quality. As I mention in the last line of the review, it is *tremendously* helped by comparisons with the other English-language period piece in the competition, which, believe it or not, is even worse.

February 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAmir

Perkins story would make a great movie too bad this doesn't sound like they suceeded

February 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Geez, what gives!!! I was looking forward to this one as a comeback vehicle for Kidman. First time director and this cast?? What were they thinking?

February 16, 2016 | Unregistered Commenteradelutza

Amir -- you're killing me. Obviously I will see this and i hope to feel much differently about it.

February 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Good gravy Nicole! She just can't get in a decent film to save her life as of late. I think she needs to take a long hiatus from the screen; something is all wrong with her as of late. I hope that her HBO miniseries comes together, she is going to need it.

February 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCollin

I almost expect Jude Law to get Oscar buzz now, but woof this movie sounds appalling.

February 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Nicole needs to get it together. I'm not surprised she agreed to do this film- she loves Colin Firth and has worked with Michael Grandage before (recently on stage in Photograph 51, which is the only thing recently she has received acclaim for). But seriously, she either needs to fire her agent or at least be a bit more discerning about the quality of scripts that come her way. Secret in their Eyes, Grace of Monaco, Before I Go to Sleep, Just Go With It? Come on girl. And Queen of the Desert and Family Fang haven't even been released yet here in the US and those movies were mixed at best, so I've heard.

It's a shame to see an artist you adore so strongly in a terrible rut but I hope she can pull her career back together.

February 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

Honestly, it's the best for all of us that Queen of the Desert wasn't released at all in the US. I'm sorry to hear she's bad in Genius, but I'm sure she isn't as bad as she was in Queen of the Desert. The absolute worst performance in her entire career. Mannered, one-note (and wrong note), and almost misogynistic. I've liked her even in films like Grace of Monaco, Before I Go to Sleep, Just Go With It, and Trespass, but with that Gertrude Bell film, I don't know what happened to her. It was like she suddenly forgot how to act.

February 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDalton

I think both Firth and Kidman need a long vacation from acting. Firth I have never cared for and Kidman I really liked in about 4 movies. She is a beauty but really lacks acting chops.

Some people like an actor/actress so much, they are blinded by their inefficiencies.

February 16, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterrick

I heard fairly good things about The Family Fang. She is really in a critical rut (except for stage) the pay few years.

February 17, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBluemoonz02

She seems disengaged from acting these days,no fire,she wa fairly hopeless in the secret in their eyes,Roberts considered the lesser actress blew her aaay even with no make up and bad hair.

February 17, 2016 | Unregistered Commentermark

Yeah she needs a break. She's losing her fans and tarnishing her legacy at this point. The projects she signs up for seem promising on paper but the flops keep accumulating. I know this is slightly mean to say but she was at her acting power peak when she was the saddest in the own life and now that she's happy and married and raising children, she's drawn to all these star vehicles with no substance. She is not even a little bit challenging herself which is very sad because we all liked her most when she was brave enough to go places no other movie stars go to. Take a break Nicole. We'll forget about this mess and then you can come back surprise all of us with a hit with a capable director and an edgy story.

February 17, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTony T

Very true,stay away until something worthy of your unusual fantastic gifts comes to you,we'll always have the fab 95 - 05 run.

February 17, 2016 | Unregistered Commentermark

I love Nicole. She's a really unique and special actress. For a long time she has been one of my absolute favorite actresses. That said--this has gotten out of control and I am starting to feel frustrated with her. I cannot believe how many out-and-out DISASTERS she has been in recently. She seriously needs to slow down and take stock of where her career is at. For a while even her lousy films were saved by her performances. It seems that lately that's not even the case recently. Reviews for most of her recent performances (save Strangerland and, if we're being very generous, Before I Go to Sleep) have ranged from unremarkable to outright bad. As a fan, it's very disappointing. Frankly, my concern is that she stars in so many outright bombs that no one will want to hire her for anything decent anymore. Probably the best that can be said for these films is that most people aren't even aware of their existence. Queen of the Desert and Grace of Monaco won't hurt her as much as, say, Catwoman and Basic Instinct 2 hurt Sharon Stone. But ... she's skating on thin ice here.

I think it's pretty obvious that she is past the point of being widely sought after. I doubt that her taste is SO terrible that she's turning down gems to star in junk. My guess is that the Steve McQueens and Todd Hayneses and Wes Andersons and Coen Brothers and Spike Jonzes are not knocking on her door. The reality is probably that Cate and Kate and Julianne and Charlize and a slew of other actresses are offered the better stuff first at this point. It's probably been that way for a while now. That said, she has to flat-out say "no" to some of these roles that she's being offered. Yeah, you might like an auteur--but if an auteur offers you a role in their WORST film, say no to it!

A tiny film like "Strangerland" that earns good reviews for her performance is not going to hurt her. An acclaimed theater performance will help her. More of that, please. But sleepwalking through a tiny role in an ill-advised and wildly unnecessary remake headlined by Julia Roberts? Starring in a truly inept Grace Kelly biopic? A bit role in an Adam Sandler film? All of these screamed "bad idea."

I do maintain some hope for Big Little Lies--but mostly because it's HBO. They are SO consistent with their programming that I'd be surprised if they released something dreadful. I hope that that does well for her and that she brings it. The small role in the John Cameron Mitchell film also sounds promising. But, yeah--all of these bad films are cluttering her filmography without much in the way of recent quality work to balance it off.

February 18, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

@Glenn Dunks: Dun worry, Law & Kidman will get some award buzz....from the Razzie!

February 18, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

Hmmm, Kidman needs to reunite with John Cameron Mitchell right away! Rabbit Hole is an amazing movie and she gives a natural and touchin performance...

February 19, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLars

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