Updated: Jan 29
THE PALE BLUE EYE, 2022 * * *
Veteran detective Augustus Landor investigates a series of grisly murders with the help of a young cadet who will eventually become the world-famous author Edgar Allan Poe.
The Pale Blue Eye is a gothic murder mystery directed by Scott Cooper. Set in winter at the West Point Military Academy of 1830, it opens with a spooky forest and makes much of moody grey days and cemeteries. Death is everywhere and yet nowhere in this film. It promises dark deeds, but doesn’t really deliver anything very plausible so that in the end, the genuine mystery is how this film, with its $55m budget and so many fantastic actors, could flop so badly.
Christian Bale, always a pleasure to see, shoulders the role of protagonist Augustus Landor, a retired New York City police constable renown for solving grisly murders. His serviceable performance as a secretly broken man suggests comparison with an earlier film by Mr. Cooper, Hostiles (2017), where Bale plays a bible-reading, U.S. Army officer and butcher of Native Americans. The tone and motivation of these two characters might be different, but in my opinion, not enough to create a memorable character as Landor.
The Pale Blue Eye, adapted from the novel by Louis Bayard (2006), is entertaining in some ways. The cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi is sumptuous, as is the score by no less a composer than Max Richter. Harry Melling is whimsical as the young and overconfident, alcoholic Edgar Allan Poe. Other fine contributions from supporting actors, including Toby Jones, Timothy Spall, Gillian Anderson, and a well-disguised Robert Duvall as the occult scholar. They dress things up killingly, (Sorry not sorry for the pun.) adopting suitable, if clownish, 19th century personae. Timothy Spall wears a face throughout reminiscent of the19th century Punch caricatures, and Gillian Anderson is two degrees north of camp. (Fun.)
The problem, nonetheless, is the story. I’ll admit, it had me going for a while, but one gets hit with the absurdity of the plot midway through, and then subjected to a ridiculous climax, followed by a mudslide info dump in the last act. Way to ruin a picture.
Lastly, we have a good example here of a character who ruins the plot. Melling, who spouts florid prose, as in the book, matches the exaggerations of the other characters. This stylization doesn’t translate as well to the screen. The pompousness gets tedious after a while. And as good as Harry Melling is, his character is also guilty of killing the movie’s suspense. (It’s not the actor's fault.) Poe undermines all the stakes the plot offers because his survival is a foregone conclusion. Too much plot armour will do that!
A shame; I love period murder mysteries. This one misses the mark.