Writing and filmmaking are two fundamentally different art forms, which may partly explain why literary adaptations or movies about writers and their process often come up short. Two competition entries at this year’s Berlinale go at it from a somewhat different angle, both with mixed results.
First off, the spotlight is turned from the author to the editor for a change in period biopic Genius. Depicting how Maxwell Perkins (played by Colin Firth) helped create such classics as Of Time and the River and Look Homeward, Angel to put Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) on the literary map in 1930s New York, the movie is unexpectedly entertaining and at times even enlightening despite its square, unadventurous form and style.
John Logan’s script pitches two distinct personalities against each other. On one side there’s the blessedly mad artist with his raw talent and need to create. On the other there’s the keen, level-headed reader ready to strike hundreds of pages off a manuscript in order to turn it into the best book possible. Through entire scenes and jazzy montages, we not only see amusing sparks of chemistry fly between the odd couple, but also witness how words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters get reworked via a riveting collaboration of minds before they end up in print.
Although both stay pretty much inside their comfort zone with these roles, we’re reminded why Firth and Law have remained such popular actors over the years. Firth’s poise and genteel manners are a natural fit for the erudite Perkins and his expression of horror at Wolfe’s extravagant behaviour is delightful to watch. Law shines playing someone so fiercely charismatic he who would suck up the oxygen in any room and leave a void behind in his absence.
Long-time theatre-director Michael Grandage plays it mostly safe with his feature film debut, following your customary biopic trajectory down to the obligatory cheesy ending – which didn’t stop the gags from working and landed a few truly moving moments. As is typical of movies made from a formula, however, its appeal might be of a more superficial kind and its impact shorter-lived.
Then we have Portuguese drama Letters from War (Cartas da guerra), which technically can’t be called a romance, considering how the lovebirds never even shared a scene together. Instead, the film consists of writings from António (Miguel Nunes), a military doctor stationed in Angola at the end of the country’s war of independence from Portugal, to his pregnant wife back home. Whatever can pass for interaction between them happens by means of verbal communication. But boy, isn’t António a smooth talker!
In the handwritten messages, read out via voice-overs by their author and his paramour, the lonely, amorous, and noticeably horny doctor recounts the first time he ever laid eyes on her, describes how he later registered her farewell as if under a state of anesthesia, swears he will only make love to her until the day he dies and proclaims, over and over again, how she’s the sun and moon to him. There’s even a scene that could probably be called the 1970s equivalent of sexting, where a parade of nouns roll off the doctor’s tongue so invitingly it leaves the missus – and all of us – hot and bothered.
Based on actual letters from renowned novelist António Lobo Antunes to his then-wife, this is a rather unusual literary adaptation. Through his own words, we get a peek inside the most intimate thoughts of a writer: where he draws his passion, what he sees in a foreign land, how he expresses every ache of tenderness with the strokes of a pen. But while there’s no doubting the descriptive force and breathless sensuality of Lobo Antunes’ prose here, the narrative aspect of the film is inevitably turned way down due to the sheer form of the material. We jump from one missive to the next, whose episodic, repetitive nature makes a broadened or deepened understanding of the characters impossible and leaves an altogether flat impression.
That said, director Ivo M. Ferreira has crafted arguably the most sumptuous visual experience at this year’s Berlinale. The open country and cultural flairs of an ancient continent caught by dazzling, exquisitely lit black-and-white photography make this film a total knock-out. There are images so beautiful it’s a pure luxury to see them splashed across the big screen. Too bad, then, that unlike Miguel Gomes’ Berlinale winner Tabu, all that beauty ends up being strictly two-dimensional and never crosses over to a more magical realm.
Genius | Sat, Feb 20, 18:15, Haus der Berliner Festspiele; Sun, Feb 21, 9:30, Friedrichstadt-Palast
Letters from War | Sun, Feb 21, 17:00, Berlinale Palast