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The Pale Blue Eye


‘…a fairly cold-hearted and mechanical story that springs to life when the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe is evoked…’

New on Netflix after one of their fakey cinema runs that no-one saw, Scott Cooper’s period thriller reunites him with the star of Out of the Furnace and his turgid Western Hostiles, Christian Bale, with considerably peppier results. Set at West Point military academy circa 1830, this is an old-school all-star murder mystery with Bale on detective duties after the body of a cadet is discovered with his heart ripped out. Gothic gloom pervades the scene, and while The Pale Blue Eye just about passes muster as a high-profile awards-season also ran, it’s got a number of points of interest, not least an intense performance by Harry Potter star Harry Melling as writer Edgar Allan Poe, seen at an embryonic stage here.

Poe is very much an informed onlooker as gumshoe Augustus Landau (Bale) arrives on the active crime scene; just who is killing cadets, and why? Suspects include doctor Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones), his children Lea (Lucy Boynton) and Artemus (Harry Lawtry), Poe himself,  Colonel Thayer (Timothy Spall), Jean-Pepe (Robert Duvall) and even the doctor’s wife Julia (Gillian Anderson). Can Landor and Poe solve the crimes before the criminal catches up with their investigation?

Based on Louis Bayard’s novel, The Pale Blue Eye is a fairly cold-hearted and mechanical story that springs to life when the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe is evoked. The grandson of Dr Who Patrick Troughton, Melling didn’t have much to do but sneer as Dudley Dursley in the Potter franchise, but he takes the role of the eccentric writer with both hands, making the gaunt Poe fun to watch as he delves enthusiastically into the gory details. Bale doesn’t showboat in the lead, giving a committed, strong performance, but somehow despite lots of good acting, The Pale Blue Eye’s mystery doesn’t resolve itself in a satisfying or memorable way due to a lack of emotional involvement, something of a staple of Cooper’s work to date.

For Netflix users who are looking for another mystery fix post Glass Onion, The Pale Blue Eye has enough juice to make for a decent night in, but not much else. The starry cast are largely wasted in roles that aren’t that vital to the solution, and while the setting and literary angle are fresh, Cooper’s film is somehow less memorable than the sum of its parts. The winner here is Melling, who makes you wish that the focus was on Poe himself; seeing the writer solving crimes for himself would make a good spin-off if the algorithms running Netflix finds that there’s a big enough audience to make it worth a shot.


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  1. Would too love to see a Poe-as-detective series. Is Netflix back in its “throw money at anything” phase, or is that never coming back? Ah well. Either way, your review got me to write one up myself and post it, so now you’ll have that hanging over your head forevermore.

    • I’ll be over to check it out. But Netflix still seem to be burning money, so they might as well burn it for a fun reason….The Inspector Poe Casebooks!

        • Poe comes spring loaded with his own moodboard of Gothic signifiers; he’s a 19th century superhero detective to be awoken. Writes itself.

  2. I had thought it would appear at my local multiplex so disappointed not to see it there. It still sounds interesting enough from your review and anything with a Poe connection always seems worth watching so will catch it up on Netflix. The problem with streaming, though, which I’m not sure Netflix realizes, is that on my weekly cinema outing choice is limited but on TV it’s the opposite.

  3. I’ve read a couple of things about this prior to landing here, and I think I will check this one out. Love the cast, and also am up for anything Poe-related. Setting and literary angle are fresh – good enough for me.

    • She learned a lot from acting with me in House of Mirth. She’s fine here, but doesn’t have enough to do.

      • Since you didn’t mention her again in the review I figured she had a bit part but was hoping I was wrong. I liked her in Bleak House and thought she did as good a job as she could in X-Files season 10, but never got around to season 11. I don’t blame her for taking off after that though.

        • She’s got the right look for a period film, and she’s got the acting chops to match. Good performer in general, not just X Files.

    • Select theatres only ie ones that will take a buck from Netflix to screen in in empty auditoriums, the cinematic version of vanity publishing. Still, worth a look at home.

      • Yep I like his stories, I like Christian Bale too, but you haven’t made a great case for it, and that’s the 2nd so-so review of it I’ve read. (The movie being so-so, not your review).

        • Nothing so-so about the comments. I was well up for this, but two weeks after seeing it, not much remains. Worth seeing for the cast, Bale and Melling.

          • Don’t know if you’ve ever been to W Point, but it’s quite a depressing place IMO, more so in 1830 when Poe attended. Ditto for Hudson River and valley…It felt like they got the oppressive, (bleak, to coin a Poe word from Raven), mechanical atmosphere right in movie. Shades of telltale hearts! You’re right that Melling should have had a larger role, and what an amazing cost of characters! The lad in reality had seen awful things in the Army (and was too young, lied about his age). Many rejected him because he was different and difficult (and had issues, mommy, booze, illness…). I would have like to see more expose on Duvall as well. There were a few things I didn’t see coming so I give it a 2 thumbs up. Author Bayard is interesting. He gave us the imaged life of Tiny Tim all grown up. He was an Army brat and is adept with dialogue. I spy with my little blue eye there’s more than meets the our winker peepers…

            • Yup, my initial thought was it was an Alienist knock off, but it felt like it was setting up what would have been a welcome three hours plus, but then not spending long enough for the stars to do much more than a turn. But I do think the portrayal of young Poe was far richer than the cliched man of mystery in the Cusack film of the Raven. Poe should be a magnetic character, and he was here. Perhaps the signifiers of the story should be enough, but I was left intrigued but not sufficiently satisfied with how the plot worked out. A spin off with Poe would not be the worst idea…

                • I never had a look at the book, I have to confess. I’ll see if we still have it and have a look. You are probably more knowledgeable on painting than me, though I’m reading a wonderful biography of JMW Turner at the moment. One of the interesting elements is that before photography, painters acted as tourist guides, whatever they painted sent droves of tourists to check out their scenes.

  4. Looks interesting. The Raven had John Cusack as Poe solving crimes based on his stories. It wasn’t great but this seems like it should be a bit better.

    • This is better than The Raven, but not quite good enough.

      What was Edgar Allen Poe like when you knew him as a student?

        • He’d racked up gambling debts in college and step dad was disgusted, so he enlisted in Army and was actually promoted but 2 years in, wanted out. He got a West z point appointment. Still, his foster dad wrote of severing all contact, so he decided to go out with a bang…40+ offenses and over a 100 demerits within 6 month span. Poe was court marshaled, then borrowed $ from cadets…did take his writing and critical appraisals more seriously afterwards.

          • This is great detail to line my knowledge of he author. I kind of liked that Poe wasn’t having Shakespeare in Live epiphanies, and yet was recognisable as the writer he would become. Poe’s inquisitive mind led him into all kind of adventures, so a young Poe series would have plenty to go on. Given the gruelling nature of West Point, it’s unsurprising that he was not a model soldier. But he made sure his own story did not stop at that point…

      • This is about my sentiment, but now I’m curious to re-watch “The Raven.” Was it really that bad? All I can remember is Cusack shouting “Loooooooong-fellow!” and Brandon Gleason sitting in a carriage. If that’s all the film was, it must be pretty solid.

        • I remember being really interested going into that movie, and then coming out feeling like I never wanted to hear another word about it. Like you, I’m wondering if it was really that bad; it vanished from my mind on watching. Cusack seemed like a good choice, but all I remember is turgid storytelling and dull visuals…

          • Indeed. Cusack does sound like a natural, and as your review proves, the concept of Poe-as-detective feels pretty obvious. I suspect a repeat watch with lower expectations–or informed more by goofy pulp appreciation–might elevate it a little.

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