Susanna Nicchiarelli’s latest film opens with a neo-punk song and the title credits flash in Alexander McQueen-style prints on screen. NS ! Looks like we’re ready for a punk-rock roller coaster ride in the life of Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor (Romola Garai); a film as radical as the woman, perhaps. Unfortunately, the opening opposite does not keep its promises. Nicchiarelli chose a fascinating woman who was surrounded by great thinkers, was a gifted writer and speaker, had avant-garde views, was a linguist, and lived a life outside the parameters dictated by Victorian society. And what is the director focusing on? Eleanor’s love life.
The film opens with Eleanor (Tussie to her family and friends) speaking at her father’s grave on the day of his funeral and it’s a practical way to introduce some of the key characters: Engels (John Gordon Sinclair), the housekeeper Helene (Felicity Montagu) and the beau of Eleanor Edward Aveling (Patrick Kennedy). Aveling is charming and supports the class struggle, but is quickly exposed as a spendthrift and an opium addict. Over the years, Aveling’s debts accumulate, her lovers call her and her health deteriorates. No one really likes her except poor Eleanor. In a way, it makes perfect sense that Eleanor would choose to live with such a loser, as she has fought for the right of women to make their own choices all her life. At least she was free to choose her wrong partner on her own terms.
The filmmaker often advances the action by a few years. Beginning in 1883 and ending in 1898, Eleanor’s life is divided into chapters divided into seemingly random years. We see her and Aveling embark on a tour of the United States to promote workers’ rights: they meet everyone from seamstresses to cowboys. It is after this trip that she gets an idea of her husband’s careless relationship with money. We see her visiting her sister and family in France and follow her on factory visits where she lobbies for better conditions. His important relationships with important figures such as Engels, portrayed here as a benevolent and jovial uncle, and South African writer Olive Schreiner spend a lot of screen time. Karina Fernandez – a Mike Leigh regular – imbues Schreiner with great warmth and affection. However, little information is given about the activist and the author, the focus here is on her relationship with Eleanor, perhaps Tussie’s most important friend.
The movie looks charming, the quite lavish Victorian interiors full of dark furniture and Persian rugs. Marx‘s study is a chaos of papers, books and a chessboard, the game left unfinished. The exteriors are more problematic: Tussie’s London home is unlike any London street I’ve been to and in fact much of the film was shot in European locations. The same problem arises in factory scenes. It just doesn’t look like England.
As a Tussie, Garai gives a serious performance. Every now and then his character breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the camera, and there’s a scene in which Nicchiarelli keeps his opening punk promise. We see Eleanor dancing to a punk song, singing and unleashing some of that passion and fire that the real Eleanor surely had in spades. It’s a shame Nicchiarelli didn’t allow Garai to let go a bit more often, as that would have made a much more interesting film and surely that would be what Miss Marx herself would have approved of.