There is something that seems to spoil the biopics on Karl Marx and his family. Perhaps it is the irreconcilable need to speak with respect about these early defenders of the working class while at the same time making their life’s work relevant to the public. Few people read today The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Friedrich Engels, but many more could potentially get the highlights of a gripping film. We are still waiting for this film.
After Raoul Peck made a blank with the disappointing The young Karl Marx a few years ago, it was Susanna Nicchiarelli’s turn to carry the burden Miss Marx. The results are not much better, in a film that looks like snippets of a promising life that ultimately leads nowhere.
The bottom line
Missing the mark.
In fact, the trajectory of Eleanor Marx, Karl’s youngest daughter, is shockingly sad, though Miss Marx underlines the risky rebellion of the heroine to the end. It is one of four Italian films competing in Venice this year.
Nicchiarelli, who wrote and directed, is one of the rising stars of Italian cinema after his warm welcome Nico, 1988, a dynamic biopic of Velvet Underground singer and icon of Andy Warhol. Here, his unconventional take on a totally unconventional woman is based on how to portray Eleanor’s modernity. The daring use of jarring rock music, which is obviously not contemporary with its subject, is not a very subtle or effective solution. Peck successfully completed The young Karl Marx on Bob Dylan notes, but that makes a lot more sense than projecting Eleanor into the future with periodic inserts of wild post-rock from Italian band Gatto Ciliegia contro il Grando Freddo.
Overwhelming music aside, this portrayal of a Victorian woman torn between her public and private life, her intellect and her heart, is a depressing sight, especially since, thanks to the vulnerable portrayal of Marx and his flaws by British actress Romola Garai, the audience is so strongly on Eleanor’s side. While Nicchiarelli’s previous heroine, Nico, voluntarily made herself ugly and unsympathetic in the punk rebellion, Eleanor Marx instead appears to be a great victim, unable to extricate herself from a toxic relationship.
The film opens with a funeral oration delivered by Eleanor after her father’s death in 1883. It is clear that she idolized him and believes that her marriage to her aristocratic mother Jenny von Westphalen, who died two years earlier, was a seamless union. This proves an illusion. Eleanor condemns close family friend Frederick Engels (John Gordon Sinclair) for his refusal to acknowledge the son he had out of wedlock with his housekeeper, Helena. But when Engels reveals to her on her deathbed that her father Karl, not him, is the boy’s father, she gives a deadly cry of despair as her image of a perfect father is shattered.
Enter Edward Aveling (Patrick Kennedy), an enthusiastic Marxist playwright and lecturer whose eyes fall on the great man’s bereaved daughter. After he lectures on Shelley, they begin a passionate affair and she invites him to accompany her on a Communist Party-sponsored tour of America. On their trip to visit factories and see working conditions in America, Eddie floods him with flowers, which embarrassingly end up on his CP expense account.
Telling her friends that she has decided to live with the man she loves as a wife – even though Eddie is already married and unable to divorce – she looks like a young woman expanding the space of freedom for generations to come. . In reality, she falls into a time-worn emotional trap.
Their expensive bohemian lifestyle is shared by friends Havelock Ellis and Olive Schreiner (Karina Fernandez), a South African author and suffragist, with whom they indulge in evenings of artistic conversation and opium. One of the film’s most notable characters, Olive (who wrote the introduction to Mary Wollstonecraft’s film A claim for women’s rights) disappears too soon from the film. Sadly, her wise advice to Eleanor to get rid of Eddie is tragically ignored.
What Eleanor can’t see is that Eddie married his first wife for her money and is now busy spending hers. She ignores her propensity to go into debt, but as the evidence accumulates on her infidelities and even a second marriage, she can no longer be wrong.
Nicchiarelli is one of the few Italian directors who are comfortable working in English, and the technical work achieves an imaginative international look. The director’s stated goal is to overturn the clichÃ©s of costumed drama, and it also shows in a clever use of timeless clothing and interiors.
Production companies: Vivo Film, RAI Cinema, Tarantula, Voo Be TV
Actors: Romola Garai, Patrick Kennedy, John Gordon Sinclair, Felicity Montagu, Karina Fernandez, Oliver Chris, Philip Groning
Director, screenwriter: Susanna Nicchiarelli
Producers: Marta Donizelli Gregorio Paonessa
Director of Photography: Crystal Fournier
Production designer: Alessandro Vannucci
Costume designer: Massimo Cantini Parrini
Publisher: Stefano Cravero
Music: Gatto Ciliegia contro il Grande Freddo, Downtown Boys
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Global Sales: Celluloid Dreams