Rebelliousness seeps through in Susanna Nicchiarelli’s biopic Miss Marx about Karl Marx’s socialist and feminist daughter Eleanor. Perhaps less so in its central character than in the filmmaking. Punctuated by flashes of energy that are accompanied by some very anachronistic music courtesy of punk band Downtown Boys (including a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark that gives the film its best scene), the film mostly ticks standard biopic boxes, following Marx from the death of her famous father in 1883 to her own death in 1898 at the age of 43. The most prominent feat of the film is how it shows the dichotomy between the strong and outspoken woman who fought for equal rights for the working classes and for women, and the submissive woman stuck in a toxic relationship with a man who leeched off of her last name and the wealth of her family friends (in particular Karl Marx’s good friend Friedrich Engels).
At the funeral of her father, Eleanor Marx (Romola Garai) meets Edward Aveling (Patrick Kennedy). Aveling himself is a Marxist, and initially this seems like a match made in heaven, their ideals aligning along the course Eleanor’s father set out. Marx and Aveling, a Darwinist and atheist, soon embark on a lecture tour of the United States on behalf of the Socialist Labor Party. Upon their return Aveling’s tendencies to spend other people’s money first come to light, as their expenses far exceed the expectations of the SLP. Marx excuses his behavior with a general “he’s not good with money,” but over time it turns out Aveling does not have the fire in him that Marx does when it comes to their socialist ideals. In her these ideals come from the heart, a true believer. But Aveling is less passionate and seems more interested in living the life of a socialist activist than actually being one. Gradually the gap between them widens, even if Eleanor herself doesn’t see it until a young woman shows up on her doorstep claiming to be Aveling’s wife (Marx never married Aveling).
Just like her film, Nicchiarelli’s direction shows occasional flashes of brilliance, going against the grain of traditional biopics by inserting authentic photographs of the dire conditions endured by (often child) laborers in the late 19th century over the very energetic songs of Downtown Boys. These moments befit her central character, and it is in these moments that Miss Marx comes alive. Equally impressive are the few scenes centered around Aveling’s opium use, in particular a scene where the pipe is shared with Marx’s friend and close confidant Olive Shreiner (Karina Fernandez) and her husband, with Eleanor not partaking. Shot from above, the intellectual and oddly sensual scene looks straight out of a Bertrand Bonello film. Scenes like this, however, starkly contrast with the conventional going-through-the-motions of chronicling Marx’s achievements, which exhibit everything you would expect from a costume drama like Miss Marx, including dullness. This leads to an unbalanced film which is anchored by a spirited performance by Garai, but in which we get very little of the characters surrounding her, even a mostly one-dimensional Aveling. It feels as if Nicchiarelli, much like her subject, was held back from completely letting loose. A shame, because the film does show promise in bursts.