Review by C.J. Bunce
Be prepared for ninety minutes of a fantastic film of Gothic fiction with the late December 2022 theatrical release The Pale Blue Eye, which is now streaming on Netflix. Also be prepared for an additional half hour where the story takes a sharp turn and spins hopelessly off course. It’s Antlers and Black Mass director Scott Cooper’s adaptation of a purely fictional story by Louis Bayard of an incident that didn’t really happen during a few weeks of Edgar Allan Poe’s brief stint at West Point in New York. The finest of the young actors to come out of the Harry Potter movies, Henry Melling is back dazzling us yet again, this time as Poe in his pre-fame college years, tapped by an investigator played by Christian Bale to solve the ghastly murder of another West Point cadet. It’s the kind of movie and performances that would warrant Oscar consideration if the underlying story didn’t slide so far off the rails in the last quarter of the story.
The Pale Blue Eye, which takes its name from Poe’s poem “Lenore,” is a great looking film in every way: The cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi isn’t very complex, but he hangs so many quiet, still frames on such incredible dark winter beauty that it’s in the league of Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans. Usually if a movie is filmed in too many shadows it is annoying, but here it fits the period. It’s a good fit because the story has influences from James Fenimore Cooper, along with Charles Dickens, especially by way of Gillian Anderson’s entrance as a scary Miss Havisham type and elements of the bizarre straight out of Great Expectations. The production design, by Stefania Cella (Moon Knight) and costumes by Kasia Walicka-Maimone (Moonrise Kingdom, The Adjustment Bureau, Ready Player One, Capote) create a perfectly believable, mostly accurate reproduction of the 1830s.
Don’t ask why Hollywood always seems to tap all-British casts for every American historical film–nobody seems to have an answer. Bale plays retired veteran detective Augustus Landor, a constabulary role that would not have existed yet in the real 1830, so chuck the details if you want to just enjoy some good Gothic ambience. But Bale’s acting in the 2020s is his best ever. This role rounds out a solid costume drama trilogy of sorts for him after The Prestige and his recent success in Amsterdam. Landor is like Sean Bean’s character in The Frankenstein Chronicles, without his wife and child he forges on alone, but unable to leave the past behind, and he’s pulled into bleak darkness of the occult variety thanks to a West Point captain played by Simon McBurney (Carnival Row, The Golden Compass). A cadet is found hanged, and suicide is suspected–but that doesn’t account for the fact his heart has been removed. Thankfully this isn’t yet another take on Jack the Ripper.
Melling’s performance as an odd spiritualist who writes and reads poetry is mesmerizing, if not all that much of a representation of what we know about Poe–it’s more of a caricature of what the uninitiated might expect of a Poe, enamored with death, awkward and bullied by his mates. Melling knocked us out in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and The Queen’s Gambit, and was a high point of The War of the Worlds, His Dark Materials, and The Old Guard. Look closely and you may see a young Robert DeNiro in his ability to manipulate that incredible face. Soon enough we’ll all forget he ever played Harry Potter’s step-brother Dudley.
Poe falls for Lea Marquis, played by Lucy Boynton, last year’s stand-out actress in Hugh Laurie’s Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? Lea is the daughter of the local doctor and medical examiner, played by Toby Jones (Capote, Captain America: The First Avenger) and his wife, played by Gillian Anderson. American actor legend Robert Duvall has his strangest role in a long career of unique character roles, playing a local expert in the occult, with a certain affinity for speaking French–it’s more cameo than character. His bit is haphazardly jammed into the story and part of what takes it all from the classic drama realm of Dickens and Cooper.
Where Bayard’s story is excellent as a historic mirror of the military inquiry processes like in Rob Reiner and Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men, it explodes into kooky at its zenith. The story doesn’t supply enough characters to make the mystery difficult to solve. But the freakish genre twist is certain to surprise everyone. Typically focus groups or early screenings could weed out the misfire here, which is basically a dark twist for the sake of Hollywood movie expectations. It’s so bad that it erases the quality of the film and story development of the first ninety minutes. It’s possible the director was stuck adapting the material in front of him, but Scott Cooper the director was also the screenwriter, so he had choices, and just gets it all wrong by introducing “convenient Satanists” to solve the mystery in a sort of diablo ex machina way. A denouement almost saves things, winding it all up in a very James Fenimore Cooper style.
For fans of Gothic fiction it will be worth the ride, and provide plenty to discuss about that ending. The visuals are too good to pass up. At a minimum it’s better than minor Gothic film efforts like The Woman in Black. Fans of Bale and Melling will have much to enjoy, too, although Boynton is substantially underutilized.
Catch The Pale Blue Eye now, streaming on Netflix.