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Italian director Susanna Nicchiarelli made a splash in Venice three years ago with her Nico, 1988, about the last days of the German singer and counterculture icon. It portrayed Nico as rather more of a rock’n’roller than she actually was, which is fair enough – but Nicchiarelli sticks her neck out considerably further doing the same with Eleanor Marx in Miss Marx, her competition entry on the Lido this year.
It’s unlikely that this tragic-fated socialist pioneer, the daughter of Karl Marx, ever enjoyed a punk-rock freakout after hitting the opium pipe, but that’s what happens here. Romola Garai going full Courtney Love makes for one of the film’s livelier tilts against biopic proprieties.
Eleanor is introduced in the film with flashing credits and a thunderous blast from US neo-punk band Downtown Boys – “riding in on a wave… a wave of history.” But what follows is mostly in a familiar mode of heritage solemnity.
Garai plays Eleanor, first seen giving a eulogy to her late parents, before meeting the man she would live with, playwright Edward Aveling (Patrick Kennedy). After a brief discussion of the poet Shelley as a socialist, they’re in each other’s arms, and he’s joining her for a trip across the Atlantic (where they learn that even cowboys were exploited by their bosses), and a whirlwind montage of black-and-white archive footage of the US. An ominous note is sounded on their return, as questions are raised over the expenses for their trip, especially Edward’s floral bouquets for his beloved.
What the film does well is to capture the domestic reality of Victorian life among the socialists, whether it’s an opium evening among bohemian friends or catching up – although there’s a lot of somewhat cluttered exposition among them, explaining to us which Marx daughter is which, and the complicated household arrangements of Friedrich Engels. He’s played by John Gordon Sinclair, who was funny and touching as Nico’s besotted, long-suffering manager in Nicchiarelli’s last film, and who exudes avuncular warmth from behind a long beard.
Given the opening, it’s surprising just how straight and sober Nicchiarelli plays it for the most part, offering a grave, somewhat theatrical (but only occasionally stilted) account of this milieu. Apart from the odd factory visit, this is largely a drawing room film, with claustrophobic interiors, and lovingly artificed chiaroscuro by cinematographer Crystel Fournier, known for her work with Céline Sciamma.
Beyond those intermittent blasts of punk, and the odd to-camera declaration from Garai, Nicchiarelli only pulls one major trick, but it’s a good one. This is a scene in which Eleanor candidly tells Edward that she’s tired of being oppressed by him, as she was by her father; we then realise that they are actually performing a scene from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (which Eleanor translated, as she did Flaubert’s Madame Bovary). Even so, the passage speaks eloquently about the realities of their relationship, and Garai and Kennedy pull it off with artful grace.
It comes as no surprise that, ultimately, it’s Garai’s performance that makes the film so watchable. She has plenty of form in costume drama, from her turn in 2002’s BBC Daniel Deronda to her relishably nutty Edwardian novelist in François Ozon’s 2007 Angel; if anyone has the wherewithal to play history with absolute naturalness, it’s her.
She pulls off a performance here that is reserved, unshowy but absolutely affecting, conveying a sense of Eleanor Marx the political thinker as well as the suffering modern woman, aware of the terms of her social imprisonment but unable to break free. Patrick Kennedy makes the most of a potentially thankless role as the charming but feckless Edward, and Karina Fernandez, a long-serving Mike Leigh regular, offers brisk support as South African writer Olive Schreiner.
It’s disappointing that Miss Marx doesn’t turn out as full-tilt provocative as the opening promises. In the end, it’s the sort of creditable, studious film that audiences are most likely to encounter at festivals, and then with faint reluctance.It’s watchable, stately, sometimes ludicrous and – in sporadic doses – audacious. Revolutionary, however, it isn’t.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Miss Marx review – Romola Garai shines as Marx’s daughter gets a punk makeover | Venice film festival