Monday 5 July 2021

Have pen, will travel: "Martin Eden"

No character this year has merited canonisation in the title of his own movie more than Martin Eden, protagonist of director Pietro Marcello's new adaptation of Jack London's 1909 novel. Here is the very definition of a big lug, ready to manspread all over the front of cinema marquees and in the audience's imagination. As personified by the actor Luca Marinelli, an Italianate Jake Gyllenhaal, this Eden bounds on screen with a head like a watermelon, the schnozz of a Roman emperor and the top-to-toe tan that comes from working on ships across the Mediterranean, and yet none of these are as grandiose as the ideas he's carrying around inside his back pocket. London meant to offer a saltily romantic, partly autobiographical portrait of the aspirant writer as both a young man and a colossus who contains multitudes and, for better and worse, sets out to straddle the globe entire. That accounts for Marcello and co-writer Maurizio Braucci's transposition: a character first conceived in Taft's America is here relocated to mid-20th century Italy, and a moment when young, working-class writers still had to work for a living, rather than sit around in their PJs hoping to land upon the one Tweet that might land them a book deal. The hope is that London's ideas - about learning and self-improvement, the various ways an ambitious young fellow might haul himself out of poverty - will translate both to another country and a different world. I found some better translated than others, if I'm being completely honest.

This is a film of dual tensions. One is thematic: Marcello and Braucci pit booksmarts (of which young Eden has very few, hence his mispronunciation of Baudelaire) against street smarts (in which he proves bounteously rich), while retaining London's lived-in insistence that our best writers come to chart their own course between the two. The other concerns how this material relates to anybody's experiences in the year 2021, and whether or not Martin Eden has merely been conceived as an exercise in literary nostalgia. We're headed for a punchline that leaves us in little doubt as to what the movie wants to say about young men with grand designs, but Marcello and Braucci are sometimes clumsy about nudging us in that direction. The early stages, in which the beardless Martin haphazardly stomps out into the world, are marked - and marred - by jarring inserts of distressed archive footage and a slaphappy deployment of Europop tunes. These are doubly peculiar choices, because with its Kodakchrome-shaped images, Martin Eden proves calculatedly handsome elsewhere, perhaps the first period drama that might credibly inspire its own Instagram filter. That filter would be a light blue wash, calibrated to bring out the navy blue of our hero's first suit, and the cornflower eyes of his society-belle beloved Elena (Jessica Cressy). This, I think, has been a big part of the film's appeal to critical first responders: it has the look of a pool you can dive into and wallow around for a couple of hours. Is it not also a bit watery, though? I kept waiting for the drama to put a stevedore's hook into me the way Martin digs his into the world, and two hours later, I found myself still waiting.

Being an Italian retelling of this story, Martin Eden is a little more demonstrative than those genteel period pieces the British film industry started grinding out in the wake of Downton's overseas success, granted, but it's still just too well-cushioned for its own good. I suspect its producers had been eyeing up those made-for-TV Elena Ferrante adaptations that have travelled the globe (and aired on Sky Atlantic over here); similarly bankrolled by the broadcaster Rai, Marcello's film has the bitty rhythms and modest virtues of an upmarket miniseries, rather than the enveloping sweep of epic history. Everything's been toned down and blanded out slightly, made picturesque where it should be punchy: the poverty, the passion, the lurch towards fascism. The relationship between Martin and Elena emerges as less compelling than that between sledmaster Harrison Ford and his CG dogs in Disney's recent London adaptation The Call of the Wild, a direct consequence of Marcello's insistence on casting pretty. We needed an Estella for this Pip - someone who burns themselves into the heart and the mind's eye - but we forget about Cressy whenever she's not on screen. (More memorable: Denise Sardisco, who has the look of a young Adjani or Bellucci as the waitress Martin crosses paths with down the line.) What's left, then, is a kind of one-man show, and as Martin morphs from boyish wonder into monstrous man of letters, you can certainly admire the way Marinelli picks up individual scenes by the scruff of the neck and drags the film along in his wake. I just wish I were as convinced as others have been that there was all that much of a film for him to drag along.

Martin Eden opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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