14 March 2012


How refreshing it is, to see a film based on a historical figure, that doesn't lean on the crutch of "Based on a true story." Doctor Who does it once or twice a season, but you don't see as many films that competently fictionalise historical characters, and in the wake of The Raven, this summer's patently absurd Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter will have to live up to the enjoyable standard set here.

John Cusack plays Edgar Allan Poe, in a mystery story that takes place in the week before the author's death. Poe is creatively stymied at this point in his life, with a dependency on alcohol and opium and no means with which he can convince the father of the woman he loves, Emily, to give his blessing for their marriage. Most disturbingly, however, a serial killer is on the loose in Baltimore, and his murders echo the inventive fates imagined in Poe's canon of grisly detective fiction. Detective Emmett Fields then enlists Poe, for his unique insight into the case, with the aim of bringing the killer to justice.

I had no idea what to expect, going in to see The Raven. I knew about the cast and crew, and that Poe was a character, but nothing about the plot, or the critical reception of the film. In this day and age, it's really hard for me to have completely avoided hearing something or other about a film, purely by osmosis, but it's when these rare opportunities come along that I often find the best surprises. This film isn't going to set the world alight, but I enjoyed its pseudo-historical and police procedural elements, and particularly the lead performance by Cusack.

On the surface of it, his Poe owes quite a bit to Robert Downey Jr's Sherlock Holmes, with his eccentricities, his ill manners and his imagination in general. As the film goes on, Cusack distinguishes himself nicely. I'm not putting his turn down, to say so, but it is a big performance. You know, like Nicolas Cage gives big performances? Cusack never seems quite as deranged as his Con Air co-star, but he does have a couple of really big, OTT line deliveries that are perfectly in keeping with the melodramatic murder mystery.

The script, by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare, works better as a whodunnit than I had expected, wasting no time on obvious red herrings or convoluted twists. The general characterisation of Poe is conflated from a scurrilous memoir written by his contemporary and nemesis, Rufus Wilmot Griswold, but seeing as how Griswold features as a character early in the film, and then as two halves of a character, the divergence from empirical history is embraced from the get go, and it worked very well. I certainly preferred it to The Iron Lady, which could only have been improved by the elderly, brain-addled version of Thatcher investigating a serial killer whose M.O. matched the way she murdered people's livelihoods during her premiership.

The director is James McTeigue, and his previous films include V For Vendetta, a film I like very much, and Ninja Assassin, a film which I don't like very much. Regrettably, the worst part of the film pulls in a much-maligned aspect of the latter; the computer-generated gore, which is distractingly bad, even though it only appears very infrequently. If I can make believable stage blood at home, from recipes that are available online, then there's no way I'll ever be convinced that there's a good reason to do it with CGI, except if you change your mind about which certification you're aiming for, during post-production. That almost definitely wasn't the case with the ultra-violent Ninja Assassin, so there was no excuse, but in this one, it's a little more jarring.

The Raven makes for a fairly enjoyable bit of historical fiction, by virtue of embracing the speculative elements instead of aspiring to make a fictionalised history. As a thriller, it has obvious links to fare as varied as From Hell and Se7en, and while it's not the type of film I want to see every week, I quite enjoyed seeing a well-executed Gothic police procedural for once. The writers and director gleefully make the most out of iconic moments from Poe's works, and in that tradition of portraying history in Doctor Who, this is a solid, on-the-nose detective story in which the credited inventor of detective fiction is a most interesting player.

The Raven is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen The Raven, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

1 comment:

NerdyRachelMay said...

I’m writing ‘Thatcher: The mystery of the Milk Snatcher Murders’ as we speak.
Directed by Michael Bay, Maggie and Dennis investigate the mystery of a serial killer targeting Coal Miners. The preferred method of offing the victims? Asphyxiation by Muriel Strepsil’s prosthetic nose.