Martin Eden

Margherita and Martin dance

 

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.

 

Martin Eden – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

The Old Guard

The cast of The Old Guard in a group shot

 

Dark hair, dark shades, dark clothes, it’s Badass Charlize Theron who turns out for The Old Guard, a superhero adventure kind of thing with a mournful air and an eye on a franchise.

There are four distinct Therons – the actor (Monster, In the Valley of Elah), the babe (Gringo, The Devil’s Advocate), the snark (Young Adult, Tully) and the buttkicker (Aeon Flux, Atomic Blonde). She’s good at them all but it’s the last in that list that we get here. Though at 45 Charlize isn’t bouncing out of the helicopters the way she once did. But if Tom Cruise can do it… and he’s 13 years older.

Theron plays androgynously named “Andy”, head of what looks like an A Team sort of outfit who go into impossible situations and sort shit out. But Andy, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) aren’t quite the people we at first think they are, and it’s not too much of a spoiler to reveal that Andy’s full name is Andromache the Scythian, that she is hundreds if not thousands of years old and that she’s the leader of a crack team of fellow immortals.

Not too much of a spoiler because all the publicity says as much and the film reveals the immortals’ true identity about 15 minutes in, after they get shot to ribbons in an ambush – set up by the shady Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is working for even shadier Big Pharma king Merrick (Harry Melling) – and bounce straight back to life.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, a boots-on-the-ground soldier (KiKi Layne) is realising that she’s unusual too, having had her throat cut and died, only to bounce back to life, fully healed. A new recruit!

 

Harry Melling as bad guy Merrick
Harry Melling as bad guy Merrick

 

The fact that Nile (Layne) is a black woman and seems to have been soldiering in a war zone with an all-female squad isn’t that important to the plot. Nor is the fact that two of Andy’s crew, Joe and Nicky, are gay lovers who have been together for hundreds of years. And nor, very much, is the detail that the immortals are a rationalist, humanist outfit of progressive trans-generational do-gooders. In fact none of these things make no difference to the plot at all, but it does suggest that writers Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernandez are aiming The Old Guard at a particular audience, one that probably doesn’t wear a red MAGA baseball cap.

In a Bond villain role, Harry Melling (once upon a time Harry Potter’s awful cousin Dudley Dursley) manages to sculpt out a bit of space as the pharma boss who wants the immortals’ DNA for his own nefarious purposes, managing to make Merrick the sort of guy you can imagine indulging in revenge porn when he’s not being a tech titan.

It is in some respects a very familiar superhero film – check anything by Marvel in the last 15 years – but the immortality angle adds something, because there’s a bittersweetness about living for ever that’s amplified when it turns out that perhaps nothing is for ever.

As action movies go, this sombre undertone both adds something extra to The Old Guard and saddles it with a buzz-kill vibe. That ambivalence extends to the role of Nile. How far to push her into the limelight is something that neither the writers nor director Gina Prince-Bythewood have answered to anyone’s satisfaction, especially KiKi Layne’s. And as it eventually becomes clear that this is a franchise opener, so it also becomes obvious that no matter how enjoyable this actioner is, there’s little chance it’s going to make it to a second instalment. Netflix say it will so it’s a case of place your bets.

 

 

The Old Guard – Buy the graphic novels the film is based on at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021