February 7, 2021 – Based on the 1909 novel of the same name by Jack London, this is the latest of several adaptations of the story, and one of two Jack London film adaptations released in 2020 (it was released in the U.S. in 2020, but released in Europe in 2019). The other current Jack London adaptation released is “Call of the Wild,” starring Harrison Ford.
I can see why this film appeals to writers, and artists in general. The hero, Martin Eden, played by Luca Marinelli (this is an Italian, French, German production featuring spoken dialog in Italian, Neapolitan and French) is an Italian writer who struggles for years to be recognized. Rejection slips from publishers are a nearly universal curse among writers.
Martin falls in love with the beautiful young Elena Orsini (played by Jessica Cressy) who is clearly out of his league. She is from a wealthy family and he is from a poor one. They meet when Martin rescues Elena's young brother from an abusive man on the docks of Naples.
To Martin, Elena is like an angel, high above him. He knows he can't attain her hand in marriage unless he becomes successful. He sees no future with his current jobs, as a sailor or an unskilled laborer. Although he doesn't have much education, he decides to pursue a career in writing. Elena loves him and agrees to wait for Martin to become a success.
Martin educates himself through extensive reading. He spends many hours writing, but is rejected by all publishers all the time. He becomes radicalized after reading about English philosopher Herbert Spencer's theory of social Darwinism. He carves out a deeply individualistic niche for himself between socialism and capitalism, which alienates him from both extremes.
About the time that Elena gives up on the idea of Martin becoming a successful writer she also becomes repulsed by his anti-Capitalistic leanings. Ironically, that is just about the same time that Martin starts to become successful as a writer.
In a sudden film transition, Martin becomes the toast of Italy as a writer, and is even in demand in the United States. He becomes a wealthy author, but is deeply bitter over Elena's earlier rejection of him, and the years of rejection by publishers that came before. He views his fame and fortune as nothing more than a fleeting fad, and is suspicious of all the glad-handers who now surround him.
It is quite evident early on (even if you haven't read the book or know the story) that Martin is not destined to end up with Elena, but the story has some interesting twists despite this. The story is a reflection of Jack London's own life. He too, became disillusioned with fame and fortune. Still, that first check that Martin gets from a publisher is quite a moment in the movie.
Luca Marinelli's lead performance is compelling, as is the performance of Carlo Cecchi (“Stealing Beauty”) who plays Martin's jaded, cynical, wise old mentor, Russ Brissenden. Cecchi's performance in this film reminds me of Toni Servillo's performance playing a similar kind of character in “The Great Beauty.”
While this movie clocks in at over two hours, even so it feels strangely rushed or choppy in places as it skips over, or lightly touches upon, major plot developments. It skips so far ahead, and backwards that I couldn't initially tell if some scenes were supposed to be depicting dream sequeces or reality. The cinematography, by Alessandro Abate and Francesco Di Giacomo, is exceptional.
One of the places where the film fails is in the character development of Elena. She is a key character in this film, but she is absent most of the time, and those deficits damage one of the movie's key scenes. I did not know what her motivation was supposed to be. I could guess what it was, and that guess could be charitable or mean.
While this story is compelling and there are some fine performances, I feel this film lacks needed cohesiveness and continuity. Part of this may be due to the fact that I haven't read the book, haven't seen any of the previous movies, and I don't speak the languages that I heard on this film's soundtrack. I was going by the English subtitles. Sometimes movie subtitles just don't give you the whole story. Because of those factors, and because I did like the story and the acting, I'll give it a pass. This film rates a C+.
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