Writer/director Scott Cooper‘s The Pale Blue Eye (2022) is half gothic mystery, half historical fiction, set in 1830s United States, and based on the 2003 novel by Louis Bayard. Center stage is the perennially immersed and fantastic Christian Bale, as weary, alcoholic private investigator Augustus Landor called to solve a gruesome ritual murder in a hushed, highly politicised atmosphere of early 19th century West Point. He unwittingly teams up with none other than Edgar Allan Poe (who served in West Point in RL), then a lowly cadet with strong literary pretensions, and a keen eye for the difficult detail. Poe is played with precision and sensitivity by Harry Melling, of Harry Potter fame, also bearing a striking, uncanny resemblance to the author.
Joining them is a carefully assembled cast, all of a high voltage thespian power, including Toby Jones and Gillian Anderson paired as husband and wife, in a family as Poesque as you can possibly imagine.
Despite a labyrinth of narrative strands, it is Melling’s Poe that is at the heart of a story, which, at its dark centre, is equally about savage desperation as it is about blind desire. If it kept its early promise of a macabre deep dive into Poe’s literary universe, via an intricate murder mystery, this would have been an outstanding thriller.
Its pretty astute in conveying the way genius is built, wherein an author’s materials lie, how an artist’s life informs everything they do in their own work, and the way the words of a poet are inextricably connected to the last minutia of their own waking (and dreaming) hours. Most interesting of all — the story explores poetry’s connection to the otherworldly.
However, The Pale Blue Eye’s admirable ambition fails in its end rush to decode every aspect of the unfolding story, without keeping the pace necessary for the audience to absorb and emotionally respond to the devastating finale. So, what was to be a catharsis ends up as almost a footnote.
Photographed impeccably by Masanobu Takayanagi in tones of ash, earth and ice, and acted to the hilt by everyone involved, it is still a riveting watch.
Author: ©Milana Vujkov