The Pale Blue Eye feels like a mystery, just a few scenes away from being great.
Published on January 26, 2023
Rating 2.5 /5
The Pale Blue Eye is the most frustrating of historical mysteries for almost working. You can hear its better film beating beneath its tactile construction, like the beating heart under the floorboards. For a film that wants to wrap Edgar Allen Poe into a dark and slightly-supernatural thriller, it has its moments of intrigue amid a twisty tale that meanders more than surprises.
Based on the novel by Louis Bayard, the film was set in 1830 in West Point, New York. A military academy becomes the scene of a hideous murder where a cadet is hung. Investigating this death is the bitterly retired detective Augustus Landor (Christian Bale). Despite being an alcoholic and having a troubled history, he commits himself to the case of finding the murderer. The case becomes all the more sinister when it is revealed that the corpse has had his heart removed. Something more horrific is going on here.
To investigate further, Landor works alongside cadet Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling), a man who is more a poet than a soldier. The two hit it off well at the tavern, and given Poe’s penchant for observing poetry and writing; he becomes a valuable companion for the investigation. It may also make him a prime suspect, given his constant mockery by the other cadets. But there are other factors at play here, considering the sloppy autopsy by Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones), the snobbiness of his wife Julia (Gillian Anderson), the fury of Superintendent Thayer (Timothy Spall), and the bullying Cadet Artemus Marquis (Harry Lawtey). Even Landor himself might be a suspect. With the bodies mounting, Landor’s cases grow tenser.
The mystery is staged beautifully. The gloomy snow setting is portrayed as cold and dark, highlighting the depressing nature of these grim crimes. One of the most impressive scenes is when Landor and Poe investigate an old house where it seems like a dark magic ritual was performed. It’s a brilliant staging for the Landor taking note of the markings on the floor and the candles burned down. The characters are also rather compelling, with Landor having a hidden sadness about his past that he drowns in pints while Poe is a writer so compelled to decipher that he gets giddy when trying to find clues in a torn piece of a note.
Despite a great cast with solid performances, the film never really takes off as it slowly plows through its detective story. There are a handful of good scenes, but few build up the mystery well, making the picture more like a stylish onslaught of acting vignettes. The mystery also feels surprisingly uneven for trying to pose a dark magic angle. This leads to a handful of and-then moments, as when Poe and Landor visit a dark magic researcher whose visit is almost entirely an exposition dump. Even the climax of the film and its twist of the actual murderer feels lacking for never carrying a more significant punch at the surprise. Just because the film's setting is dour doesn’t mean the reveals have to be just as subdued.
The Pale Blue Eye feels like a mystery, just a few scenes away from being great. It has a remarkable cast and atmosphere to fit the tone of a grizzly period-piece murder. But the dreariness becomes so monotomous as the mystery spins its wheels, rarely engaging past the decadence on display. It’s not quite a case of style over substance, but the style really is the highlight of a film where even a dark magic ritual of cutting out hearts can’t inject enough thrills into this picture.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.