The Pale Blue Eye

Director: Scott Cooper
Starring: Christian Bale, Harry Melling, Gillian Anderson, Lucy Boynton, Toby Jones, Timothy Spall, Robert Duvall, Fred Hechinger, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Charlie Tahan, Simon McBurney, Hadley Robinson, Harry Lawtey
Distributor: Netflix
Runtime: 128 mins. Reviewed in Dec 2022
Reviewer: Fr Peter Malone msc
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Strong themes

Veteran investigator Augustus Landor is asked to investigate mysterious deaths at Westpoint, 1830. One of the cadets, Edgar Allan Poe, assists him in his detection. A macabre story that Poe himself might have written.

What do we know of the celebrated 19th-century American writer Edgar Allan Poe? Poe was a strange mixture, adopted as a child, clashing with the adoptive parents, a talent for writing, editing a magazine, a famous literary critic, a key inspiration for the development of detective stories…

Here is a fictionalised story about the young Poe, though it is grounded in his life as well as in his literary imagination. And it begins with a quote from Poe about the line between life and death, and the pale blue eye of death.

Audiences who enjoy period dramas, crime mysteries and their solution, will find this tale compelling. And there are some twists to surprise.

The setting is the military Academy at West Point in upper New York state during the winter of 1830. And a snowclad winter it is. There has been a mysterious death at West Point, a student hanged, then, at the autopsy, the realisation that his heart has been cut from his body. Needless to say, the authorities are alarmed and decide to call in a veteran investigator, Augustus Landor, who had solved a number of cases successfully in the past.

The film focuses attention on the character and personality of Augustus Landor, yet another excellent performance from Christian Bale. Landor is a widower, his daughter disappeared, a brooding man, working slowly, observing, interrogating, following clues. But he asks the authorities for the assistance of a West Point cadet. He is approached by Poe, a mysterious cadet, who suggests the murderer is a poet. Poe is, in fact, flattered to be invited to help with the investigation and he mixes with fellow students, ingratiates himself with a rather exclusive club, meets with Landor, but is also attracted to the daughter of the local doctor who suffers from seizures. (All important for the development of the plot.)

Poe is played by the British actor, Melling – and, if one looks at portraits of Poe online, Melling does resemble him, an unusual face (to advantage in the Harry Potter films, in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and, particularly, the sinister pastor in The Devil All the Time). He certainly makes a complex and intriguing character.

Interestingly, most of the central cast is British, including Jones as the doctor,  Spall as the superintendent of West Point. There is a cameo from Robert Duvall (aged 90) as an expert on the occult. Boynton is the young woman and Armstrong as her often overwrought mother. 

The murders are solved – but not quite in the way we anticipated. One might call The Pale Blue Eye a brooding film – intriguing and inviting us to experience the brooding.

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