Tuesday 6 March 2012

Bird of prey: "The Raven"

James McTeigue's The Raven is an enjoyable resuscitation of that old pulp plot about the writer whose life and work become entangled with those of a psychopath: the twist is that the writer is Edgar Allen Poe, and the film preys upon on the long-standing idea that Poe's final months were a mystery - and thus open to reinterpretation as a murder-mystery. This Poe (John Cusack) is found trying to carve out a post-literary career as a drama critic for a Baltimore newspaper - and attempting to woo Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), the daughter of a rich merchant - when the bodies begin piling up: in locked rooms, or sliced in two by a large blade attached to a pendulum, their face adorned with a devilish red masque - and it's here we realise that part of The Raven's project is to reclaim for Poe such gory demises, and the themes of entrapment and torture all but bludgeoned to death by the Saw movies and their imitators.

As ever, there's a degree of slippage between the man who first thought up these gruesome matters and the individual prepared to carry them out: after a fallow period for inspiration, the murders inspire Poe to write anew in a bid to stem, or at least control, the flow of blood. The whole film is bookended by shots of the author drifting in and out of consciousness on a park bench, suggesting we might read everything in between as the fantasy of a struggling scribe - that of having at least one person, however twisted, recognise him as the artist and innovator he believes he is.

It'll be more fun the more Poe you know: the unusually literate script (by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare) drops in such details as the writer's incredible bad luck with women, his ongoing feud with "that hack" Longfellow, and baroque crime-scene twists, lifted from minor works in the canon, that provide the basis for Da Vinci-with-smarts-like sleuthing. McTeigue, who followed up the semi-interesting V for Vendetta with the pretty awful Ninja Assassin, stages decent chases through theatres and the tunnels under Baltimore's streets, and enjoys tossing red herrings - crafty cutaways to minor players acting suspiciously - into the pot, such that it's unlikely you'll twig whodunnit until it's almost over.

If there's a downside, it's the occasional pulp failing of supporting parts that feel more like cogs than actual characters. Luke Evans is typically solid yet unmemorable as the inspector on the case; Eve's bosomy damsel-in-distress role is a promotion on her Sex and the City 2 gig, but she spends much of the movie buried alive; and while Brendan Gleeson nails the accent as her gruffly protective father, he - like Kevin McNally as the newspaper editor identified as a possible suspect by an incongruously funny line in an early sequence - has nothing much to do save turn up.

A saving grace is Cusack's Poe: at once a richer sleuth than Robert Downey Jr.'s streetfighting Sherlock, dourly comic (in his interactions with a pet raccoon), an extension of the actor's cultured star persona (lambasting a tavern full of American philistines until he finds the one patron who can quote the poem of the title - a Frenchman, naturally), prone to Nic Cage-like shouty-ranty bits and sudden swells of melancholy, he's a figure as tormented, haunted and finally as romantic as the words his real-life inspiration came up with. Outside Dark Shadows, I'd wager this is going to be Tim Burton's favourite studio release of 2012.

The Raven opens nationwide from Friday.

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