Set against the desolate backdrop of New York’s Hudson Valley in the recesses of a frigid 1830 winter, THE PALE BLUE EYE utilizes historical fiction to explore the military school days of poet Edgar Allen Poe and perhaps dig up some inspiration for his most famous works.
The film, based on the best-selling novel by Louis Bayard, with screenplay by Scott Cooper, centers around Augustus Landor (Christian Bale), a distinguished and jaded detective, and his search for the culprit of the recent murder of a West Point cadet. Enlisting the assistance of another cadet, Poe (HARRY POTTER’S Harry Melling), he uncovers the truth behind the brutal murder and, in doing so, uncovers some truths about himself.
As much as I enjoyed this film, it somehow seems off-balance. There seems to be an entire step missing in the mystery-solving process, for as soon as we begin to sense a rising action take place (which does take a while, considering the two-hours-plus runtime), the climax has come and gone, and we’re left with a rather lengthy epilogue.
That’s not to say it’s not an effective movie. It’s an interesting and beautifully-filmed little whodunnit with some excellent performances. As strong and engaging as Bale is, his role takes far too long to become interesting. The star here is Melling, who brings an enthusiastic oddness to the role of Poe, embracing the poet’s morbidity and making sense of it simultaneously. His appearance is suitable, and his application of the text to the screen is mesmerizing. I’d almost love to see him play the role in what might be considered a better movie. Gillian Anderson, as Mrs. Julia Marquis, the mother of a cadet at the academy, is stellar and bizarre in her portrayal—and, unfortunately, under-utilized. The role doesn’t need to be any bigger than it is; I only wish it were because of how wonderful it is to watch Anderson play it. The cast is rounded out by Timothy Spall, Toby Jones, Harry Lawtey, Lucy Boynton, and Robert Duvall, who all deliver incredibly solid performances.
The film is directed by Scott Cooper (ANTLERS, CRAZY HEART), who has a great sense of dark storytelling. He utilizes what Poe is known for and applies it to the tone of the film, but the pacing is off, and somehow the story just comes across as uninvolved. It’s beautiful to look at and interesting to watch, but it moves a hair too slowly with just a smidge too few stakes involved. Cooper makes up for it in setting, instilling an isolated and melancholy sense throughout. The utilization of natural lighting coming only from the sun, flames, and candles brings the colonial setting to life. Costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone deserves recognition for some stunning period pieces, adding texture and color where appropriate to the stark white snowy background.
The film is watchable, enjoyable, even, when in the mood for a patiently-paced murder mystery revolving around one of American literature’s greatest contributors. There are only a couple of hints as to where Poe may have gotten inspiration for his works, so it’s refreshing to see that his presence isn’t simply for novelty, though it begs the question: why is he even in this story to begin with? Honestly, I don’t care. I enjoyed the movie, and I loved Harry Melling’s portrayal of the gothic scribe.
THE PALE BLUE EYE is available on Netflix.