Review: Luca Marinelli is mesmerizing as Jack London’s Martin Eden

Luca Marinelli in a scene from Martin Eden, photo by Francesca Errichiello, courtesy Kino Lorber
Luca Marinelli in a scene from Martin Eden, photo by Francesca Errichiello, courtesy Kino Lorber /

Luca Marinelli gives a mesmerizing, passionate performance as the titular sailor-turned-writer in an ambitious and sprawling Italian adaption of Jack London’s Martin Eden.

Far too often, we tend to let wonderful foreign films slip through our fingers — for a number of different reasons. Maybe it’s because they don’t get much press, so we never hear about them in the first place. Maybe they don’t have subtitles, so they aren’t accessible for English-speaking audiences. Maybe they’re never made available in the United States, so even if we wanted to, we couldn’t watch. Nearly a year after it snagged Luca Marinelli a Volpi Cup for best actor at the Venice Film Festival,  Martin Eden is finally getting a release in the United States — and we can unequivocally say this is one of those foreign gems you do not want to let slip through your fingertips.

Starring Luca Marinelli (with whom American audiences will be most familiar as Nicky in Netflix’s The Old Guard), as the titular sailor-turned-writer, Martin Eden is an ambitious, sprawling film that near flawlessly adapts Jack London’s novel of the same name, never buckling under the weight of its source material, while also carving its own distinct, often idiosyncratic, path.

As with most book-to-film adaptionsMartin Eden is an all-encompassing and seemingly gargantuan film that, despite its massive scale and significant time-frame, never loses sight of itself or its identity as not only a vehicle for London’s story and Marinelli’s performance but also as a nearly self-aware piece of cinema. Littered throughout the film are old reels of footage, jumping between decades seemingly at random, which creates a dizzying, almost dreamlike effect where the audience is left to wonder when exactly things are going on.

Director Pietro Marcello takes things a step further, but the characters themselves bounce between decades when it comes to their dress, their modes of transportation, and even their technology. It’s incredibly effective when it comes to creating a nearly woozy atmosphere, in which our only constant is Martin Eden himself, wandering through it all right alongside us — or, rather, us alongside him.

Without question, this is Marinelli’s film, and nobody else’s. As Martin Eden, he is a constant, walking juxtaposition — studious, introverted, dedicated, almost soft-spoken at times, while also being prone to fits of passion, rage, and even violence when the occasion calls for it. More than once does he knock someone on their head, and he’s littered with the battle scars to prove it. Beyond the physical transformation Martin undergoes, though (which is pretty shocking in and of itself, he looks like a completely different person by the end of the film), it’s the emotional one that stops us dead in our tracks from doing anything else but watching in awe at the power of Marinelli’s performance.

If Marinelli weren’t so capable, we can envision a world in which we hate Martin Eden – where we’re frustrated with his stubbornness, with his uselessness, his fool’s errand of attempting to be a writer when he begins his journey as an illiterate sailor. But no, we never find ourselves angry or even annoyed with Martin. Instead, we’re more than willing to forgive his flaws because he has this ineffable quality about him — an inner light, a charm that makes it virtually impossible to dislike the man, so much so that in a few moments of self-awareness, several characters comment on that same quality.

Wherever Martin goes, we’re more than willing to go right along with him because Marinelli’s performance never lets up. We’re with him nearly every second of the film, never leaving his perspective, but we don’t want to leave, either. You root for him, in his successes and his failings, because his passion and his drive and make him one hell of an underdog — and hey, that beautiful face doesn’t hurt either.

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Alongside Marinelli is a strong supporting cast. Jessica Cressy is particularly moving as Elena, the Daisy to Martin’s wandering Gatsby,  and while her vanity and snobbishness are incredibly transparent, at the same time you can’t help but feel bad for the woman who finds herself caught in Martin’s whirlwind at the worst times, never quite aligning herself with him when it matters most. Denise Sardisco plays Margherita, Martin’s other love, but we never feel as attached to her as we do with Elena — through no fault of Sardisco’s own.

We can’t help but feel that Margherita’s lack of character is indicative of one of the film’s few failings: its difficulty navigating the last 30 minutes of the film. Once Martin makes it big, the pace speeds up significantly, and it’s almost as if we’ve missed a chunk of the movie that we should’ve seen, considering how slowly we took things in the first two acts. It’s not unwatchable, not by any means, but this is one of the rare cases where we wouldn’t have minded a few 15 or 20 minutes tacked onto the runtime to give Margherita more depth and allow for more fleshing out of the third act. Alas, the task of adapting a novel is a difficult one, and our best guess is that the failings of the film’s last act are a result of difficulties making the jump from page to screen.

Outside of some pacing issues in the last half-hour, though, Martin Eden is a sight to behold — a uniquely dreamlike and constantly passionate film that’s spearheaded by an incredibly mesmerizing lead performance. Between its anachronistic score, decadent visuals, and a tour-de-force performance from Marinelli, Martin Eden is a gripping epic and a dazzling adaption of London’s novel.

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Have you seen Martin Eden? What’s your favorite movie based on a book? Sound off in the comments below.