Eleanor Marx not well served in new bio-pic

Romola Garai as Eleanor Marx.

Miss Marx
Directed by Susanna Nicchiarelli, 2020
Starring Romola Garai, Patrick Kennedy
Showing nationally as part of the British Film Festival

Eleanor Marx, the fourth daughter of Jenny and Karl Marx, was a lifelong socialist writer, translator and organiser.

As explained in Rachel Holmes' authoritative biography Eleanor Marx: A Life, she was an intellectual force and fearless leader of both the British and the international socialist movements, beginning with her work as her father’s secretary at the age of 16.

Her liberated sexual politics was fundamentally opposed to Victorian era, straight-laced, repressive attitudes. However, her personal life was blighted by the difficulties of a free-spirited individual woman navigating a world dominated by the economic and cultural power of men, even among socialist men.

That is the focus of this heartbreaking film: Eleanor’s painfully unbalanced relationship with her de facto husband, left-wing playwright Edward Aveling.

In modern terms Aveling would be called a sociopath. He was a highly intelligent conman who wheedled his way into the socialist movement, extracting money from all and sundry and never paying it back while sleeping with as many willing women as possible.

His behaviour and dishonesty finally drove Eleanor to suicide.

Miss Marx has many strengths, not least of which is Romola Garai’s calm performance as Eleanor. She is in just about every scene and lesser acting would have totally destroyed the film.

Patrick Kennedy, as Aveling, is less compelling. Aveling could never have gotten away with what he did without a supreme ability to charmingly beguile others while lying to their faces.

Unfortunately, Kennedy’s Aveling is a damp squib. Nobody confronted with this blank personality would tolerate his misbehaviour for a moment.

Other disappointments are the performances of those playing Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The two men who personified the Communist Manifesto’s spectre that was haunting Europe are shown here as incapable of troubling anything.

And, regrettably, there are other weaknesses.

The majority of the dialogue is taken from Eleanor’s letters and other writings, which is creative and historically accurate, but it is less than riveting cinema. This script would be an electrifying play, an environment where "talking heads" are to be expected.

Having Garai simply recite some of Eleanor’s writing to the camera is a nice learning experience but not a great filmic device.

Other scenes have Eleanor unemotionally addressing crowds of workers, with words scripted out of her writings. It produces the ungratifying effect of her as coldly detached from the working class rather than the passionate organiser and leader that she was.

And, there is a musical score of thrash punk music that simply doesn’t make any sense.

To be able to understand this film the viewer has to be well-versed in the history of the Marx family and the era in which they lived. Pity the poor person trying to figure out the stray references to other sisters and their offspring.

Miss Marx features British actors but is a joint Italian/Belgian production, making it an interesting inclusion in a post-Brexit British Film Festival.

[Watch the trailer for Miss Marx .]