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There’s something that seems to jinx biopics about Karl Marx and his family. Perhaps it’s the irreconcilable need to talk respectfully about these early defenders of the working class while at the same time making their life’s work relevant to audiences. Few today read The Communist Manifest by Marx and Friedrich Engels, but many more could potentially get the highlights from a gripping film. We’re still waiting for that movie.
After Raoul Peck drew a blank with the disappointing The Young Karl Marx a few years ago, it’s the turn of Susanna Nicchiarelli to carry the burden in Miss Marx. The results are little better, in a film that seems like tidbits from a promising life that ultimately leads nowhere.
In fact, the trajectory of Eleanor Marx, Karl’s youngest daughter, is shockingly sad, though Miss Marx underlines the heroine’s risk-taking rebellion up to the end. It’s one of the four Italian films in Venice competition this year.
Nicchiarelli, who wrote and directed, is one of the rising stars of Italian cinema after her warmly received Nico, 1988, a dynamic biopic of the Velvet Underground singer and Andy Warhol icon. Here, her unconventional approach to a totally unconventional woman founders on how to depict Eleanor’s modernity. The bold use of jarring rock music, which is obviously not contemporary with its subject, is not a very subtle or effective solution. Peck successfully ended The Young Karl Marx on the notes of Bob Dylan, but that makes a lot more sense than projecting Eleanor into the future with periodic inserts of wild post-rock from the Italian band Gatto Ciliegia contro il Grando Freddo.
Obtrusive music aside, this portrait of a Victorian woman torn between her public and private lives, her intellect and her heart, is a depressing spectacle, all the more so because, thanks to British actress Romola Garai’s vulnerable portrait of Marx and her flaws, the audience is so strongly on Eleanor’s side. Whereas Nicchiarelli’s previous heroine, Nico, made herself deliberately ugly and unlikable in punky rebellion, Eleanor Marx seems more a great victim, unable to extricate herself from a toxic relationship.
The film opens with a funeral oration Eleanor makes following her father’s death in 1883. It’s clear she idolized him and believes his marriage to her aristocratic mother Jenny von Westphalen, who died two years earlier, was a flawless union. This proves an illusion. Eleanor condemns the family’s close friend Frederick Engels (John Gordon Sinclair) for his refusal to recognize the son he had out of wedlock with his housemaid, Helena. But when Engels reveals to her on his deathbed that her father Karl, not he, is the boy’s father, she lets out a deathly shriek of despair as her image of a perfect father shatters.
Enter Edward Aveling (Patrick Kennedy), a playwright and rousing Marxist 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 come with her on a tour of America sponsored by the Communist party. On their trip to visit factories and see working conditions in the U.S., Eddie deluges her with flowers, which embarrassingly turn up on her CP expense account.
Announcing to her friends that she has decided to live with the man she loves as his wife — even though Eddie is already married and unable to get divorced — she sounds like a young woman expanding the space of freedom for the generations to come. In reality, she is falling into a time-worn emotional trap.
Their expensive bohemian life-style is shared by friends Havelock Ellis and Olive Schreiner (Karina Fernandez), a South African author and suffragette, with whom they indulge in evenings of artistic conversation and opium. One of the most striking characters in the film, Olive (who wrote the introduction to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman) vanishes from the film too soon. Unfortunately, her wise advice to Eleanor to dump Eddie goes tragically unheeded.
What Eleanor can’t see is that Eddie married his first wife for her money and is now busy spending hers. She shrugs off his proclivity to run them into debt, but as evidence piles up about his infidelities and even a second marriage, she can no longer deceive herself.
Nicchiarelli is one of the few Italian directors who is comfortable working in English, and the tech work reaches for an imaginative international look. The director’s stated goal is to overturn the clichés of costume drama, and this can be seen also in an astute use of time-bending clothes and interiors.
Production companies: Vivo Film, RAI Cinema, Tarantula, Voo Be TV
Cast: 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: Crystel Fournier
Production designer: Alessandro Vannucci
Costume designer: Massimo Cantini Parrini
Editor: Stefano Cravero
Music: Gatto Ciliegia contro il Grande Freddo, Downtown Boys
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
World sales: Celluloid Dreams
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