It’s 1843 and a firebrand young journalist gets into trouble with the German police for defending the rights of peasants to scavenge dead wood from a landowner’s forest. Five years later and Karl Marx, son of a Jewish convert, would co-write ‘The Communist Manifesto’, a defining moment in the history of modern thought. This sturdy biopic examines the formative journey between those two points, as Marx finds a trusted friend and collaborator in Friedrich Engels, and the rest is a radical new viewpoint on history as struggle.
Given that the Marxist principles of workers-versus-capital still inform left-leaning thinking to this very day, it’s certainly useful to examine how they came into being. However, after the dazzling way in which ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, Haitian director Raoul Peck’s previous offering, connected past and present in considering the legacy of African-America writer James Baldwin, what’s on offer here is decent but slightly stodgy fare by comparison. True, it’s strong on showing how the turmoil of Marx and Engels’ everyday lives shaped their thinking, and its portrait of the fractious proto-socialist ferment of the time is undeniably fascinating – yet the film feels slightly constrained by the weight of all exposition and explanation it has to get through. It’s a worthwhile watch, but until the closing montage, meshing together a century and a half of subsequent history to the strains of Bob Dylan, it never quite thrills as much as you’d hope.