For the birds

I reviewed The Raven for Critic’s Notebook. I did this mostly because I remember coming out of The Sure Thing in 1985 convinced that John Cusack was a superhuman actor equipped for any film genre dreamed up by man, and wanted to see if the theory still held water. Which it does, if you charitably call the current model of 15-year-old-friendly un-horrific horror films a genre. And I reviewed it in verse, because an open goal is still a goal.

The film makers never actually bring up the name of Alan Moore, but they hardly need to. The man’s shadow will loom automatically over a film in which a historical literary figure adopts contemporary mannerisms and lands himself in a tale so self-reflexive that it feels like its own graphic novel. The fact that The Raven also manages to look a lot like a cross between From Hell and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, filmed in the well-known Baltimore suburbs of Belgrade and Budapest on sets lighted by the output of one small firefly, and by the man who made V for Vendetta to boot, just makes the wizard of Northampton’s presence more palpable.

Four thousand miles east and forty-five years later, Georges Duroy rides again in the new version of Bel Ami. This time the general air of Now is more considered, since these are actors with distinctly modern ways of going about their business, and the plot’s interests in desert wars and press corruption are kept on the boil between all the un-corseting and de-girdling.

It also shows three composed and seemingly self-possessed woman drawn helplessly into bed with a floppy-haired youth at very little urging, leaving the story open to its most misogynist reading. Robert Pattinson gamely submitting to a fine bout of joyless sex isn’t really enough to balance the books, and I can think of several folk who might hate it, for reasons both warranted and not.

Whether Bel Amis tweaks and mannerisms energize the historical-drama trade or leave it looking a bit rootless is a murky question, but all the right texts have been studied. A film that remembers how Uma Thurman is naturally built for period drama is setting off on the right lines, and this one goes on to hire Anthony Higgins and Christopher Fulford for cameos of several seconds each. If only it could have wheeled the three of them into the same drawing room for a shouting match.


March 17, 2012