Eye For Film >> Movies >> Martin Eden (2019) Film Review
Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson
Jack London is no stranger to film adaptations. His novel White Fang has been filmed at least eleven times over the last century, To Build A Fire has inspired at least half a dozen shorts. Martin Eden has been filmed before too, first by early film polymath Hobart Bosworth in 1914, just six years after first publication.
The novel itself is heavily autobiographical, the protagonist an autodidactic seaman, caught by ambition to be a writer. The text itself is set in Oakland, the turn of that century, all steam packets and laundry and locomotives, word-rated periodicals (if only!) and cycles of postage and rejection letters. Maurizio Braucci and Pietro Marcello (who co-writes (adapts?), directs) transfer the setting and in the process add depth to their adaptation.
Italy, the 1970s or so, unions and unrest, brown suits on red politics. Caught not just with archive footage but colour-grading and tone and lighting, discontent on the streets and setting, costume, weight and weave. Martin Eden still not a merchant venturer but a swaggering sailor, first encountered asleep on deck. Not from working though, from drink and dance, atop a pile of ropes but not bound by them. He rescues a young man, Arturo, becomes besotted with his sister Elena. The Orsini family have a certain kind of wealth, a garden somewhere in the seven hills perhaps, old furniture, a dining room, art that is a product of finance. Inspired by culture, status, he sets his course for literary success.
It is not an easy voyage. Luca Marinelli, possibly most famous internationally for his role in The Old Guard, is Martin. Passion abounds, highs, lows, sweetness, bitterness. It's a tremendous performance, the kind that behoves an eponymous role. In his wake Elena (Jessica Cressy) and Carmela (Anna Patierno) among others, swept along, sometimes sail, sometimes anchor, part and parcel of the forces pulling on him. Carlo Cecchi's Russ Brissenden and Pietro Ragusa's Orsini paterfamilias are models of masculine achievement, but these too are acts of emulation.
It is within a structure and a mode that both dates and updates the work. It seems a grand, even big, piece of acting in a film that feels like the Seventies. The movie equivalent of newly reactive post-punk that is at once 40 days and 40 years old.
Some of this is technical - shot on Super 16mm it is doubly a period piece. There is, if not digital trickery, then incredibly careful composition to have Martin/Marinelli walking down streets that betray nothing obvious of the modern era. Crowds and the crowded, a man among many. To quote Martin/London himself, "all the arts have their conventions" (1) "an illusion that won't convince is a palpable lie" (2). This Martin Eden convinces as something plucked from its era - we are effectively as far now from the era it so effectively simulates as that age is from its source novel. The tone of the film (parallel intended) gives it a hue and heft that does convince. This is not a forest masquerading as sea, but one past as foreign country doing double duty for another.
Swathes of the novel are removed, but key elements remain. The socialism and individualisms of the Golden State are ably transferred to the Bel Paese. The irons of industry are different - a significant episode in the text is time as a laundry-man, but here the only presses are printing. The salons (literary and otherwise) are similar, however, and so the seas. The ocean lifts still between steam packet and schooner, tramp diesel and three-master.
Poverty, power, hungers metaphorical and actual translate well. References abound, but this polyglot piece pays heed to a variety of texts beyond its parent. The music by Marco Messina and Sacha Ricci has at times a proto-disco/Italo feel, the cinematography by Alessandro Abate and Francesco Di Giacomo also contributes to its period feel. It's of an era, but a fuzzy one, a very specific non-specific, and all the better for it. There are diversions into the epistolary, moments of stillness, moments of beauty, and through it all a passion.
Not just Martin's, London's, nor written in Marinelli's performance, but in creating a sense of style and place that works to frame it. Yet I suspect that this is about a balance of tastes too. Those quotes above from the novel are about Martin's reaction to an opera - his ability to separate the quality of vocal performances from the mugging of the singers. Unschooled in operatic tradition he "considers [he is] fortunate in not having been caught when [he] was young. If [he] had, [he] could have wept sentimental tears tonight, and the clownish antics of that precious pair would have but enhanced the beauty of their voices..." (3) I cannot fault him for his consideration, after all he saw the opera and not me. Yet I cannot escape that the key element of the Proscenium is the arch - and here I think the formality of fakery adds something worthy to a work where authenticity and effort are at the heart. The slipping away at the end is contrast to the struggle beforehand, and all the stronger for it.
(1) London, Jack, Martin Eden, London, Penguin 1993, p.255 (2) ibid, p.257 (3) ibid, p.256Reviewed on: 23 Mar 2021
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