A raucous, rock n’ roll-tinged opening sets the stage for Susanna Nicchiarelli’s Eleanor Marx biopic, “Miss Marx,” all crashing music and zinging credits, giddily announcing that this will not be your typical biodrama. Yet, save for a few more uses of a modern punk score (including at least one scene that delivers on all that early promise, though far too late) and an explosive performance from star Romola Garai, Nicchiarelli’s latest is guilty of the cardinal sin of the genre: boxing an indelible real-life star into movie-ready constraints.
Eleanor, Karl Marx’s youngest daughter and one of his closest confidants, lived a life worthy of a Sub Pop soundtrack. She liked to play in her father’s office while he wrote “Das Kapital” and became his secretary at 16. Around the same time, the family took in Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, a journalist who was exiled from France for his participation in the Paris Commune. At 17, Eleanor fell in love with the 35-year-old Lissagaray, who continued living with the Marx family for nearly a decade despite the family’s initial disapproval of the match. She and her father helped Lissagaray write “History of the Paris Commune of 1871,” but she broke it off in 1882 and her father died not long thereafter.
In “Miss Marx,” those experiences receive only oblique reference. Instead, her father’s death kicks off the film and Nicchiarelli’s screenplay opts to dramatize what would become Eleanor’s last act: Everything hinging on the way she was treated by her really shitty “husband,” Darwinian biologist Edward Aveling.
As the film opens and Eleanor eulogizes her father at her parents’ shared grave, Nicchiarelli cleverly twists an obvious idea — that Eleanor, now the most important member of the family, is doomed to live in the shadow of her father — into something even more personal: She’s doomed to live in the shadow of her parents’ epic love story. No wonder she falls so hard and so fast for the sniveling Aveling (Patrick Kennedy), who at least seems to be in possession of a brain big enough to match hers.
Eleanor is expected to hold her family together, a role with which she seems familiar. She splits her time being stuck inside the cramped family home — “Miss Marx” nails the look and feel of stuffy, less-than-prosperous London in the late 19th century — and hitting the bricks to spread the socialist message of worker’s rights, where she keeps crossing paths with writer and thinker (ugh) Aveling. Soon enough (far too soon, really), they are in a whirlwind love story, traipsing across England and America in service to the party and each other.
While “Miss Marx” doesn’t break out of its genre constraints when it comes to Eleanor’s personal life, Nicchiarelli manages some verve when her heroine is out working, interspersing vintage stock footage of impoverished workers with Garai’s own fourth wall-breaking monologues on her ideals. There’s pep there, and originality, but it — much like Eleanor herself — is soon given over to Edward’s caddish charms.
Kennedy’s role is tricky one. He turns in a coolly conniving performance, briefly appealing to Eleanor (and the audience) with his outspoken manner, before revealing himself to be world-class jerk. By then, it’s too late for Eleanor, and even as her closest friends and compatriots gently endeavor to make her see his true nature, she refuses. Instead, she opts to live with Edward as his wife — even though they can’t actually get married because his first wife won’t divorce him, despite the fact that it means losing close friends.
Eleanor, it seems, is hellbent on breaking out of the conventional roles that have defined her life. Despite being born into one of the modern era’s great thinking families, Eleanor (or “Tussy” as her family has long called her, though she has no idea why) has been expected to take on rigid caregiving roles with nearly everyone in her orbit. No wonder she’s so inspired by worker’s rights and the promise of feminism; she needs them almost more than the people to whom she’s preaching. It’s a big idea, and one that “Miss Marx” only bumps up against intermittently, instead often choosing the most rote and well-tread path to tell its story.
Garai’s explosive performance and Nicchiarelli’s oddly restrained film come together in at least one glorious moment, the sort hinted at during those rollicking open credits, as Eleanor finally lets loose to a soundtrack provided by the anachronistic Rhode Island punk band Downtown Boys. It’s vibrant, wild, genius, all the things that Eleanor Marx should be remembered for, and all the things that “Miss Marx” is so shy about delivering, no matter how punk rock a story it seems to think it’s telling.
“Miss Marx” premiered at the 2020 Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.