Susanna Nicchiarelli’s latest film opens with a neo-punk song and title credits flashing in Alexander McQueen-esque prints across the screen. Woohoo! Looks like we are in for a punk-rock rollercoaster ride in the life of Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor (Romola Garai); a film as radical as the woman, perhaps. Alas, the in-your-face opening does not live up to its promise. Nicchiarelli has chosen a fascinating woman who was surrounded by great thinkers, was a gifted writer and orator, had forward-thinking views, was a linguist and lived a life outside of the parameters dictated by Victorian society. And what does the director focus on? Eleanor’s love life.
The film opens with Eleanor (Tussie to her family and friends) speaking at her father’s graveside on the day of his funeral and this is a handy way to introduce some of the key characters: Engels (John Gordon Sinclair), the housekeeper Helene (Felicity Montagu) and Eleanor’s beau Edward Aveling (Patrick Kennedy). Aveling is charming and supports the class struggle, but he is soon outed as a spendthrift and opium addict. As the years progress, Aveling’s debts pile up, his lovers come calling and his health deteriorates. Nobody really likes him, except poor Eleanor. In a way, it makes perfect sense for Eleanor to choose to live with such a loser, for she has fought for the right of women to make their own choices all her life. At least she was free to pick her lousy partner on her own terms.
The filmmaker frequently shifts the action forward a few years. Starting in 1883 and ending in 1898, Eleanor’s life is broken up into chapters split into seemingly random years. We see her and Aveling embark on a tour of the US to promote workers’ rights: they meet everyone from seamstresses to cowboys. It is after this trip that she has an inkling about her husband’s careless relationship with money. We see her visiting her sister and family in France and follow her on factory tours where she pushes for improved conditions. Her significant relationships with important personages such as Engels, portrayed here as a benevolent and jocular uncle figure, and the South African writer Olive Schreiner are given plenty of screen time. Karina Fernandez – a Mike Leigh regular – imbues Schreiner with great warmth and affection. However, little information is given about the campaigner and author, the focus here is on her relationship with Eleanor, perhaps the most important female friend Tussie has.
The film looks lovely, the fairly lavish Victorian interiors full of heavy dark furniture and Persian rugs. Marx’s study is a chaos of papers, books and a chessboard, the game left unfinished. The exteriors are more problematic: Tussie’s London home does not look like it is on any London street I know of and in fact much of the film was made in European locations. The same problem arises in the factory scenes. It just doesn’t look like England.
As Tussie, Garai gives an earnest performance. Occasionally her character breaks the fourth wall, talking directly into the camera, and there is one scene in which Nicchiarelli makes good on her opening punk promise. We see Eleanor dance to a punk song, singing along and unleashing some of that passion and fire that the real Eleanor surely had in spades. It’s a shame Nicchiarelli didn’t allow Garai to let her hair down a bit more often, for that would have made for a much more interesting film and would surely be what Miss Marx herself would have approved of.