It all seems cunningly familiar: damp, cobblestoned streets; gaslights barely cutting through the thick fog; horse-drawn carriages transporting unseen travelers in a populated 19th century city. A scream! A murder! Maybe two! The police, baffled, call in the one brilliant mind of the time, a moody man with an anarchic sensibility who knows crime better than anyone else.
Oh goody. It’s about time we had another installment of Sherlock Holmes. Beg pardon, Watson, what did you say? This is Poe, not Conan Doyle? This is Cusack, not Downey? Set in Baltimore rather than Britain, and 40 years earlier to boot? Heavens, this is some blunder.
But not as big a blunder as this feeble attempt to turn Poe into a fascinating fictional creation, running with a pack of cops that brings to mind the word “Keystone,” foundering within a plot so vague, acting so over-the-top, that the only shiver running down your spine is that of revulsion. To this non-poetic 2012 rendering of The Raven, we might all be tempted to, um, quoth, “Nevermore.”
If not for the fumbling execution, this idea might have worked. Take the father of crime fiction, the redoubtable Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack), and center the plot around his very real, mysterious death in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1849. Add in a fictional serial killer who pays homage to the writer by investing his murders with elements from Poe’s short stories. Head police detective Emmet Fields (Luke Evans), after quickly dismissing the notion that the killer is Poe himself, entreats him to aid in the investigation. As the crimes grow closer to Poe’s acquaintances, including a threat to his own ladylove Emily (Alice Eve), Poe grows increasingly desperate to find the psychopath.
Utilizing locations in Budapest and Belgrade to evince a mid-19th century look, the production is decidedly handsome. In a smart opening sequence, an overhead shot looks down at Poe on a park bench, followed by a raven soaring against an illustrative moonlit sky. The writer will often retreat down empty streets late at night, his black cape unfurling from his form as if he, too, were a sort of raven. Later, as beautifully costumed guests waltz during a sumptuous ball, the scene cuts back and forth to a death-masked rider galloping through the wind-whipped woods on his horse… heck, even the horse is outfitted in snazzy metal accessories. But we’ll need more than intriguing sets and costumes to hold our attention.
And then there’s Hannah Shakespeare’s and Ben Livingston’s script, at once over-theatrical and inane. In a laughable moment of “Come on!,” since Poe will stand over the serial killer’s victims and immediately recognize the particular story that’s inspired the crime, why can’t he browse through his own library and, within a few minutes of quasi-bright deduction, figure out just where the primary victim has been stashed? (On a side note, haven’t the writers been clued in to the fact that with mysteries, they might want to throw the audience a few bones, allowing us to make a stab at solving the crime?)
Livingston and Shakespeare (honestly, with a name like that!) also err in their choice of language. In the first act, Poe spews wickedly inventive phrases that are the purview of a writerly mind (e.g., “mental oyster,” “over-grown mouth breather”). But by the third act his speech belongs to that of a 21st century man.
As for the character of Inspector Fields, we may never have met a more optimistic policeman. Though the case grows more dire, Fields remains inexplicably certain that the one missing victim is still alive, that the killer will be found, that Poe would gladly give his life for another’s … Fields is sure of this, and he’s sure of that. He’s so busy expressing his unshakeable outlook, he barely has time to do his job. Which may throw some light on his decision to send Poe off through the dense woods to shoot the killer … unlike his well-trained police force, he’s sure that an inexperienced marksman such as Poe is the better choice. Huh?
While Cusack does a perfectly fine job, both Luke Evans and Brendon Gleeson are embarrassingly hammy. Perhaps this may explain why, in sensing their over-boiled performances, Alice Eve chose to go the other way, delivering such a low-key portrayal of Poe’s sweetheart Emily that we wonder if she’s slightly unwell. (When an onlooker remarks how much life Emily has, we wonder if said onlooker is suffering from the same delusional malady that’s overtaken poor Inspector Fields.)
Director James McTeigue made an impressive splash with 2006’s V for Vendetta. Perhaps he’ll have other, better chances in the future to redeem himself. But he’ll have to wait until this particular Raven has flown the coop.
Rating on a scale of 5 abuses of Po-etic license: 2
Release date: April 27, 2012
Directed by: James McTeigue
Screenplay by: Hannah Shakespeare & Ben Livingston
Cast: John Cusack, Luke Evans, Alice Eve, Kevin R. McNally, Brendan Gleeson
Running Time: 111 minutes