REVIEW: The Pale Blue Eye (2022)

In 1830, the body of a West Point military cadet is found hanged in the forest. Before the body may be examined by the academy’s doctor (Toby Jones), its heart is mysteriously cut out. Retired detective Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) is convinced to investigate the case, and to assist him the young cadet Edgar Allen Poe (Harry Melling) is assigned to his service.

The presence of real-life poet Edgar Allen Poe may fool you into thinking The Pale Blue Eye is some kind of true crime drama and is based on obscure historical events. It is not. Despite Poe’s prominent place in the story – and he really was for a time a West Point cadet – this is a fictional mystery, using an actual person to colour and affect a story of murder, the occult, and carefully guarded secrets.

The film reunites director Scott Cooper with his Hostiles (2017) star Christian Bale, and together they create a work that – while flawed – does seem an improvement on that earlier work. Bale is superb here, playing Landor in a lower key and quieter fashion that many past roles. Landor is an alcoholic and a recluse. His wife is dead and his daughter has disappeared. He seems soaked in melancholy, and that emotional state is emphasised by the film’s bleak, wintry setting. It has been lensed marvellously by Cooper’s regular cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, and combined with strong costuming (Kasia Walicka-Maimone) and locations it helps to make The Pale Blue Eye one of the most attractive thrillers of recent years. Howard Shore’s score sees the composer in full Silence of the Lambs mode, and matches the visuals to a tee.

If watching Bale’s performance is a pleasure, Harry Melling’s is a revelation. The English actor, best known for his juvenile performances as Harry Potter character Dudley Dursley, plays Edgar Allen Poe with apparent authenticity and subtle layers of depth. His performance is not mannered, but rather a realistic depiction of a highly mannered man. When he is on screen he is hypnotic to watch. When he is off it the film seems somehow diminished without him. I genuinely hope this is a breakthrough performance for him; quickly frankly people should have been having discussions about awards. A superb supporting cast includes Toby Jones, Gillian Anderson, Lucy Boynton, and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Most surprising is a delightful small performance by 92-year-old Robert Duvall. He is, as always, delightful.

The only real flaws in the film are, sadly, in the screenplay. I have not read the Louis Bayard novel on which the film is based, but taken in isolation Cooper’s narrative is a little too long and wobbles perilously from time to time. While the film works on an emotional level, and superbly so, it is constructed in such a fashion that any viewer who enjoys solving murder mysteries as they watch them will be terribly frustrated. There are plot issues in an over-long third act too, although the screenplay does go out on strong emotional ground. They are, in the end, what they are: just flaws. The direction, production aesthetic, and performances are all top-class and make The Pale Blue Eye a tremendously enjoyable dark thriller. Watch it for the mood, and for Harry Melling’s brilliant performance.

The Pale Blue Eye is currently streaming on Netflix.

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