Thomas Wolfe, a young novelist from back-of-beyond North Carolina, convinced that he was a genius and desperate to be heard, writes to all the publishers in New York. Max Perkins, editor of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, agrees to publish him. Wolfe is a totally undisciplined writer, and his manuscript needs a lot of work. Somehow, the collaboration works, and the book is a commercial success. At that point, Wolfe dumps Perkins, as he seems to have dumped nearly everyone he no longer needs. Wolfe dies young, so we never know what else he might have written with a normal life span.
This movie has an interesting story, a good script, and a terrific cast. Yet somehow it falls flat. I think it’s because two of the three leads, while fine actors, are badly miscast.
Jude Law, an often under-rated actor, gives a fantastic performance as Wolfe, a man from nowhere who somehow speaks in flamboyant poetry, and who experiences life in all its majesty with a passionate intensity (and not much concern for anyone else).
I can’t say as much for Nicole Kidman, who plays Aline Bernstein, the woman who left her husband and family for Wolfe and bankrolled him before he became famous. In real life, Bernstein was short, plain, and significantly older than Wolfe; Kidman is none of those things, Bernstein’s bizarre, public suicide attempt, while faithfully reproduced, is not credible in Kidman’s portrayal — as an actress, Kidman is simply too beautiful, too resilient, and has too much dignity for us to bridge the gap between movie and reality. It’s as if Robert Redford had played the lead in The Graduate instead of Dustin Hoffman (don’t laugh — Redford auditioned for the role).
The bigger problem, though, is with Colin Firth, a fine actor who seems to have completely misunderstood his character. We are told that Perkins has “the gift of friendship.” But as portrayed by Firth, he is taciturn and morose. We see the joy he gets from reading Wolfe’s work — but not how he conveys his admiration to the author himself. Maybe it’s the hat. Perkins was known for wearing hats everywhere, even at the dinner table. But since nobody in the movie mentions it, even as a jocular aside (“Whatever you do, don’t ask him about his hat”), it just comes across as weird.
Two scenes in the movie give a tantalizing hint of how good this movie could have been. One is a scene between Perkins and Hemingway (Dominic West !). The two men engage in a kind of easy camaraderie and mutual respect that likely made Perkins such a genius editor. But we don’t ever see that side of him again. The second scene occurs towards the end of the movie, when Perkins meets Wolfe’s mother, an aging country woman who eagerly starts speaking to him in flamboyant poetry. Now we know where Tom came from — but where did she?
Postcript: Firth based his accent on Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor who was famously fired by Richard Nixon in what became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.” Cox apparently sounded a lot like Perkins, and with good reason — he was his nephew.