“Miss Marx” is a biopic bookended by death, colored by it throughout. It introduces us to socialist activist Eleanor Marx at the funeral of her father Karl, and follows her through to her untimely suicide, at the age of 43, some 15 years later. Ghosts of the past and future weigh heavily on her in the interim: She mourns her father not long after burying her mother and her sister. Months after Eleanor’s suicide, her long-term partner Edward Aveling followed her into the ground; another sister took her own life years later. All of which is to say that waves and shadows of grief move through Susanna Nicchiarelli’s ambitious film at every turn, running backwards and forwards, as it studies how its subject attempted to change the world for the better — all while a hard black knot of compacted unhappiness settled and expanded inside her.
This makes for an unavoidably downcast portrait, only barely leavened by its reminders of Eleanor Marx’s forward-thinking achievements in campaigning for universal suffrage, improved labor conditions for the working class and equal education for women and men. But “Miss Marx” is heavy in other ways too, weighed down with essay-like rhetorical scripting and an expanding ensemble of supplementary historical figures who are drily contextualized, if at all: Those who aren’t very well-versed in the film’s chosen chapter of Marxist history will find themselves working rather hard for sporadic emotional rewards. And while Nicchiarelli has chosen to enliven her stony material with a spirit of punk rock rebellion most literally evident in a snarlingly anachronistic song score, the film never quite shakes its dourness.
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A sternly conscientious performance by Romola Garai in the title role gives “Miss Marx” its best shot at international distribution following its festival run, though this English-language Italian-Belgian co-production is no commercial prize. For writer-director Nicchiarelli, graduating to competition at Venice after triumphing in the 2017 Orizzonti section with her striking rock bio “Nico, 1988,” her fourth narrative feature confirms her as an auteur of distinctive thematic and aesthetic preoccupations, even if it’s more shaggily executed than its predecessor.
After an opening credit sequence that clues us into Nicchiarelli’s more anarchic intentions, with hyperactive direction-switching pink lettering and the first of several cacophonous soundtrack cues from U.S. punk band Downtown Boys, the film screeches to a solemn halt with Eleanor’s delivery of her father’s eulogy in 1883. “He died in harness, his intellect untouched,” she says, and duly dedicates herself to honoring and extending his philosophical legacy: translating his seminal text “Das Kapital” into English and joining the Social Democratic Federation, before splitting to form the rival Socialist League party.
Nicchiarelli’s script touches on these political maneuverings, but is more concerned with her relationships within a loquacious, competitive intellectual circle — most notably with fellow Marxist activist and playwright Aveling (Patrick Kennedy), with whom she lived, under increasing strain, until her death. A marriage in all but law, blighted by Aveling’s infidelity, mental cruelty and financial irresponsibility, their ill-starred love affair forms the crux of the film’s otherwise amorphous, easily sidetracked life study. Nicchiarelli is evidently fixated on the bitter contradiction between Eleanor’s trailblazing feminist campaigning and her subservience to toxic masculinity in her private life. It’s an irony she acknowledges but waves away for that most peskily essential of reasons: because she loves him.
There’s a hell of a cinematic bad romance to be made out of this tortured bind, but “Miss Marx” doesn’t get to the heart of it. That’s in large part because the film is so enamored of its subject’s moral and political ideas — to which it devotes wordy stretches of screen time, sometimes in the form of heightened, fourth wall-breaking soliloquies — that her feelings get comparatively short shrift. Aveling, meanwhile, is written as such a cold, slippery fish from the off that we never see much direct evidence of their self-destructive passion: In a neat bit of metatextual misdirection, their most heated exchange comes in what turns out to be a staged reading of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” Briefly, one wonders if we’d be better off watching Garai and Kennedy simply perform the rest of it.
Away from this chilly emotional center, characters drift blurrily in and out of proceedings, rarely registering as much more than famous names in Eleanor’s general orbit. A protracted subplot concerning Karl Marx’s brother in socialism Friedrich Engels (John Gordon Sinclair), their shared housekeeper Helene Demuth (Felicity Montagu) and intimate secrets between them would be of more interest if this were Marx Sr.’s story. Meanwhile, the celebrated South African writer Olive Schreiner (Karina Fernandez) pops up almost solely to warn Eleanor that Aveling may be a bit of a bad egg: Not every great woman in this unfocused biopic gets her due.
If the film is finally a bit of trudge, it doesn’t want for attractive scenery along the way, as richly shot in perennial early-winter light by Crystel Fournier. Alessandro Vannucci and Igor Gabriel’s lavish period production design wraps Eleanor’s misery in faded, jewel-toned velvets, overlaid with the dizzy paisley swoops and crinkly silks of Massimo Cantini Parrini’s costumes. (The gap between the tactile luxuries in Eleanor’s lifestyle and the desolate poverty of those she fights for does not pass without comment.)
Indeed, the film’s least pleasing formal flourish is its most strenuously showcased: That brash punk score, climaxing with a limb-flinging freakout of a dance sequence, doesn’t stress the contemporary resonance of Eleanor’s story so much as it conjures pale echoes of Sofia Coppola’s 14-year-old “Marie Antoinette.” By the time the credits roll over a thrashing cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” it’s hard not to wince at the lyrical hook: You can’t light a fire without a spark, and this admirably conceived but hard-going history lesson never quite finds one.