'The Pale Blue Eye' Is Clickbait Historical Fiction

Directed by Scott Cooper

Starring Christian Bale, Harry Melling, Lucy Boynton, Gillian Anderson, Toby Jones, Harry Lawtey, Timothy Spall, Robert Duvall

Photo: Scott Garfield / Netflix

BY Rachel HoPublished Jan 4, 2023

The general premise of The Pale Blue Eye had me on board straight away. It's a detective story set in 1830 USA with one of American literature's most significant figures at the forefront, not to mention Christian Bale and Harry Melling leading a team of very talented actors, including Timothy Spall, Robert Duvall, Gillian Anderson and Toby Jones. Unfortunately, The Pale Blue Eye doesn't deliver on its promise.

Based on Louis Bayard's 2003 novel of the same name, The Pale Blue Eye envisions a murder mystery at West Point, the United States Military Academy located in Upstate New York. Detective Augustus Landor, played by Bale, is called upon to investigate the apparent suicide of a cadet when it's discovered that the body's heart has been removed. Aiding Landor is a young Edgar Allan Poe (Melling), a cadet at the academy who attempts to infiltrate the different social groups in search of clues.

The mystery at the centre of the film is excellent. It's layered with occult influences, commentary on how far West Point pushes its students, and moments of Sherlock-like clue finding. Any intrigue and thrills associated with uncovering the true nature of these events, though, are dampened by languid pacing that makes the film feel sluggish one too many times.

And then there's the inclusion of Poe who, in real life, did attend West Point at this time — an experience that was marred by familial strife and his desire to be dismissed by the academy, which he was in 1831. Those familiar with Poe's work who are expecting to see shades of his writing or references to his life in the film will be greatly disappointed. In the end, having Poe as part of The Pale Blue Eye was inconsequential. The character could have been given any other name and the story would not have changed in the slightest. It's a missed opportunity to introduce an iconic figure like Poe into the fold and not have any payoff whatsoever — it's like clickbait historical fiction casting.

Notwithstanding the meaningless addition of Poe, Melling is great in the role. Not only does he bear a strong physical resemblance to the poet, Melling's off-kilter performance is perfectly in keeping with what is known of Poe. While in a supporting role, Melling quickly takes over the film due in part to Bale, ever the experienced actor, subtly stepping aside to give the floor to Melling. 

Director Scott Cooper plays all the right aesthetic beats, using West Point's great buildings and nature to his advantage by creating eerie snowy tableaus, and dressing the sets and actors to recreate the era in an immersive fashion. It's an easily accessible world that audiences can get lost in — it's just a shame that the story fails to capture the imagination, too. 

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