Thomas Wolfe should be so lucky: Martin Eden is this year’s second film adaptation of a Jack London novel, following February’s The Call of the Wild. Like Asheville’s Wolfe, London is an early 20th century novelist who has largely fallen out of literary favor. Martin Eden was his Look Homeward, Angel — his most personal work, inspired by his own life.
The movie Martin Eden lifts the plot and themes of London’s 1909 novel about an aspiring working-class writer and drops them down in post-World War II Italy. The time frame is intentionally ambiguous, and director Pietro Marcello gives his movie a timeless look by shooting on 16mm with saturated colors reminiscent of the films of Bernardo Bertolucci.
The movie’s storyline also seems something of a throwback: The poor, grumpy Martin (the unrelentingly intense Luca Marinelli) falls in love with a rich young woman and sets out to educate himself sufficiently to be worthy of her. There are speeches about class divisions, the utility of art and other heady topics, plus betrayals and angst and explosions of anger.
The film’s stellar art direction, exquisitely rendered costumes and shimmering cinematography, along with its uniformly fine cast, are its chief selling points. How the characters and themes connect with you will depend on your tolerance for the self-importance that afflicts both, and for the kind of arch discussions of art and society that make for comic fodder on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
London clearly had some anger issues, as well as a lot of Big Ideas he was better at putting into words than into narrative. The film bears the consequences of those impulses, giving greater weight to its messages than its characters and thus diluting the power of its otherwise richly romantic storyline. Did I mention that the movie looks great?
Available to rent starting Oct. 16 via fineartstheatre.com