16 March 2012

Review: The Raven

(Dir: James McTeigue, 2012)

It’s disappointing when a film with an interesting concept doesn’t live up to the potential this offers. Such is the case with The Raven. Set in 1840’s Baltimore, The Raven follows legendary American writer Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack), most well known for his macabre gothic horror stories, through his final days. He is frequently drunk, has dried up his well of story ideas and is desperate for the local newspaper to publish more of his writing as he needs the money. Then in the midst of this the police come to Poe for his assistance - a killer is out there recreating scenes from his stories, putting him in a unique position to help.

The central conceit about an author being brought in to help track a killer who is replicating his work is an interesting one, especially when it concerns a notable real life literary figure. Curiously this is something they’re able to get away with as Poe’s death was a mystery and no-one knows what happened to him in the last few days of his life, meaning this fictional extrapolation doesn’t really distort history as it's known, even though it rings as implausible. Nonetheless it makes for a good story set up.

It’s a shame then that there’s not much else positive to say about The Raven as it doesn’t feel very convincing. First and foremost for this is the casting. John Cusack is a very reliable actor, good in everything he's in and usually very likeable too, but he feels miscast as Poe. He does add personality to the role but there was something gnawing at me saying that he shouldn’t be playing this character, especially as he didn’t really fit right in this time period, almost like he was bringing something too modern with him. I think an element of this might’ve been dialogue coming across a little too stilted. It’s a shame because it’s always good to see Cusack on screen.

Although I said above that I thought the concept was good, the story itself is pretty generic which is another issue. In reality The Raven is a pretty bland murder mystery that plods along from one clue to the next, with just the odd fairly exciting scene in between to enliven things. This stems from the direction which is average and perfunctory, with little attempt made to take it beyond this. I’m not really convinced by James McTeigue as a director – V For Vendetta is a really good film although I think the original story forced the direction to be interesting to ensure it translated properly, however Ninja Assassin was completely bland and with The Raven falling along these same lines, it seems McTeigue needs very strong source material to get close to producing something above average.

I wasn’t totally convinced by the setting either, something about the set design and locations didn’t ring totally true. Maybe the set design just wasn’t up to scratch, but perhaps this is where a bigger production budget can make a difference? It’s these little details that can influence how much you buy into a story. I have mixed thoughts on the supporting cast too. Luke Evans does a decent enough job as Detective Fields, the chief investigator of the murders, but Alice Eve as Poe’s love interest Emily, who has a bigger role to play in the story, seems a little too modern for the time, whilst Brendan Gleeson, playing Emily's father Colonel Hamilton, veers too regularly into overacting territory.

I went into The Raven wanting to like it but came out feeling it was lacking something important. Evidently there are a number of issues across the entire film, but I was most disappointed Cusack wasn’t the right person to play Poe as he’s usually a pleasure to watch. Tonally it would’ve been more interesting if they’d gone down a darker route, skating closer to horror territory, because as it stands the generic murder mystery style is pretty ungratifying, especially when you see that there is much more potential in the concept. So overall, a lacklustre stab at an interesting concept.

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