Martin Eden (2019)

Pietro Marcello’s vibrant film adaptation of the Jack London novel has a raw verve and energy that’s rare in historical dramas, although its stylistic panache can’t mask some thin characterisations and muddled politics. Nevertheless, it’s often a thrilling watch and is impressively immediate and imaginative.

This is a tale of young working-class sailor Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli) who strives to better himself and to join the more refined upper social classes by becoming a writer. This drive is sparked by a chance encounter with Elena Orsini (Jessica Cressy), a young woman from a wealthy and cultured family whom Martin immediately falls for. But he’s equally captivated by the literature, paintings and music that fill her opulent household. Faced with his own limited education, he starts to feverishly devour every book he can get his hands on and then tries his hand at writing short fiction, determined to have his own literary voice and undeterred by constant publisher’s rejection.

Martin becomes friends with Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi), an elderly writer and socialist who encourages Martin to give up writing and return to the sea before the pursuit of literary life corrupts him. But Martin perseveres, driven by a strong sense of individualism and by the writings of Herbert Spencer and Nietzsche, becoming increasingly self-absorbed and fervent, which threatens his relationship with Elena.

Luca Marinelli as Martin Eden and Jessica Cressy as Elena Orsini

Martin Eden has a thrilling energy and visual style. Shot in grainy 16mm and often with a roving hand-held camera, it has a rough and immediate texture that’s a world away from the standard glossy handsome period dramas we’re accustomed to. The colours are impressively over-saturated, the contrast turned up; the effect is to make it feel both raw and stylised. The kinetic editing intercuts scenes with touched-up archive footage of shipyards and streetscapes that blend seamlessly. Other times we see snippets of more poetic visuals – boys diving to catch squirming octopus washed in cyan hue as a commentary on natural laws of evolution, or recurring footage of a 19th century fully rigged boat at sea, both a reminder of Martin’s origins and a metaphor for his fated journey. It’s bold stuff.

Marcello has relocated the novel from Oakland to Napoli, and the film has a very distinct sense of place. The street scenes feel very earthy, chaotic and immediate. More contemplative moments with the waves glistening in sunlight at the docks, or a pastoral country scene with a pale Vesuvius in the distance are beautifully shot. The tone of the film also feels very Italian, very alive and passionate.

Despite this strong sense of physical place, the film’s time-period is impressively indeterminate. Initially we think it’s set contemporaneously with London’s 1909 book, but then anachronisms creep in – a jukebox, or some fifties fashion. The soundtrack of easy listening synthesiser chintz and Moroder-esque noodling is similarly disorienting. Gradually we realise that the movie is set in an imprecise 20th century, the production design and intercuts suggesting anything from pre-war to the 1970s, which emphasises that the themes – and particularly the politics – are universally relevant.

Carlo Cecchi as Russ Brissenden and Luca Marinelli as Martin Eden at a dockworker’s political meeting

For this film doesn’t shy away from its political ideas, primarily setting socialism and collectivism against survival-of-the-fittest individualism and self-determination. Jack London was a self-proclaimed socialist yet he gives his protagonist very different political views in what is otherwise a semi-autobiographical work.

With his friend Martin attends union meetings in the docks, but he considers the workers aims to overthrow the bosses not only self-defeating (they’ll just be replaced by worse bosses), but fundamentally flawed in a world where the strongest prevail. A fervid autodidact and self-made man, he believes any moral impulse is against the natural laws of evolution, and he becomes increasingly outspoken and insistent on his position. Martin is an anti-hero and his intense individualism comes to corrupt and ultimately destroy him.

Luca Marinelli and Jessica Cressy in Martin Eden

But here the weakly drawn characters let the film down. Most of the roles are defined by what they represent politically rather than having any individual life. Elena’s household includes a stern, disapproving housemaid, a liberal industrialist father, a kindly yet cautiously bourgeois mother. Sometimes we’re invited to see Martin through Elena‚Äôs eyes, but most often she remains a thinly sketched echo of Gatsby’s Daisy. Elena herself is culturally cocooned, and discomfited faced with the impoverishment of Martin’s world; Martin’s acquaintances include his socialist friend Briss, and his honest and kindly landlady whose unquestioning encouragement regales Martin. They’re all stereotypes written with little depth; the actors don’t have much to work with.

This fatally dilutes the film’s political themes. Martin’s rants become tiresome and ugly (although perhaps that’s the intention), but there’s no real counterpoint. I felt some sort of commentary on social class and culture was intended, but it remained elusive or at best facile. The film is perhaps best viewed as a tale of one man’s self-destruction, rather than a muddled and indistinct political commentary.

Luca Marinelli as Martin Eden and Jessica Cressy as Elena Orsini

More effective is the heady blend of various film references that inform its visual style. The anachronisms and grainy texture reminded me of the underseen Lazzaro Felice (Happy as Lazzaro). The fascist aesthetic of Bertolucci’s magnificent The Conformist. The gritty nostalgia of 1970 and 80s new Hollywood including Once Upon a Time in America (which incidentally featured the main character reading Jack London’s novel). The playful use of archive footage and colourisation in some of Goddard’s later essay films. Elena reciting her letters with a monocolour background reminded me of scenes from Bergman’s film. The immediacy of Italian neorealism. And, in a staggering jump in the final quarter of the film, a kind of punk Visconti. Martin Eden absorbs all these influences yet retains its very strong sense of self; just as well given the film’s individualist themes.

So a mixed bag, perhaps; both fascinating and infuriating. Captivating yet at times tiresome. But it’s bold, brash and imaginative. Martin Eden has a remarkable energy and flair that makes it an exciting watch, despite its significant flaws.

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