Martin Eden

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With a couple of the names changed perhaps because Lizzie and Ruth don’t roll easily enough off the Italian tongue, this is a fairly straightforward adaptation of Jack London’s novel Martin Eden, about a lowly sailor who falls for a high-born girl and decides to become a writer in order to win her heart.

Here, Martin is played by Luca Marinelli, and the rich Ruth character, now called Elena, is played by Jessica Cressy. The Lizzie character, the poor girl who loves Martin for what he is rather than his social status, inherited or newly acquired, is now called Margherita and is played by Denise Sardisco.

A Bildungsroman, a Künstlerroman, a novel of sentimental education, call it what you like, it’s a tale of hard knocks, the self-taught Martin banging out stories on his typewriter and banging his head against the brick wall of rejection letters and bourgeois indifference, to the point where Elena finally gives up waiting for him, having wondered all along whether a guy with his background could ever be a writer. Margherita, meanwhile, waits patiently for the man she loves to realise what he’s missing and choose her.

It’s not that much of a story, to be honest, and the digressions into worker unrest, leading to disquisitions on socialism vis a vis individual freedom do feel like digressions rather than part of a seamless whole. Jack London had misgivings about this aspect of the book too, and it’s perhaps no accident that he’s remembered mostly as the writer of adventure yarns like White Fang or The Call of the Wild.

The original novel was published in 1909 and is set in the early years of the 20th century. This adaptation shifts the action to Naples (mostly) in an indeterminate 1960s and it’s shot entirely on Super 16mm film, which gives the whole thing a grainy, colourised Italian neo-realist air. Shot on film it may have been, but there’s been a hell of a lot of work done in post production on the look of Martin Eden, which is its glory – a symphony of blues and greens, all carefully colour graded so that when any additional colour intrudes it really pops.

Martin with Elena
Poor man, rich woman: Martin with Elena

Composed with a painterly eye by director Pietro Marcello and DPs Alessandro Abate and Francesco Di Giacomo, it quotes from other films and documentaries of the period and before, dropping in excerpts – some colourised to fit in, others left as is.

Martin, like other adventurers such as Barry Lyndon, Tristram Shandy or Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp, is clever and charming and in Luca Marinelli it has the perfect actor – handsome, with an easy smile and a wilful flash in the eye. I saw Marinelli only a couple of days ago in Hollywood superhero flick (sort of) The Old Guard, so his star is clearly ascendant.

It’s stylish in that Italian way of everyone looking as if that’s exactly how they ought to look, as if everyone had been born to wear the clothes they are in, but you wouldn’t describe the film as overly engaging in a dramatic sense, but then these picaresque journeys do tend to meander.

A bit of a plodder then, sad to say, but the compensations are the way it looks, the finesse with which it’s been made and the high-octane acting on display. The whole film feels like it could have been lifted from the period when it is set. Which is very hard to pull off – look at The Artist (done as if it were a film from the silent era) or Mank (a film set in the 1940s made like a 1940s film) and you can spot the anachronisms. This does not happen in Martin Eden and it’s another good reason for putting it on your “films to see” list.

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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