The Pale Blue Eye

By Joanna Langfield

We’ve got to chip through a whole lot of frost to get to the fiery heart of this Gothic whodunit.

Christian Bale stars as a reclusive detective, living in the woods near West Point, New York in 1830. Officers approach his cabin, asking for help in solving the possible murder of a cadet, who was found dead in the snow. Augustus Landor is no fan of the military academy and, it seems, they’re no fans of his. A code of silence pervades, until Landor befriends a young man eager to help. His name? Edgar Allen Poe.

Scott Cooper’s film is based on a novel that drew from some real life events, but what seems to work best in this adaptation is not the mystery, but the look at Poe, one of our most iconic writers. And while there is a whole lot of drama circling Bale’s mysterious detective, as well as the West Point leaders and their families, I found myself far more compelled by the look at Poe’s early days, something I really didn’t even think about before. It’s interesting stuff, especially so because of the performance from Harry Melling, who has grown from a Harry Potter co-star to fascinate in The Queen’s Gambit and, even more so, in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Not only is he terrific here, you can feel the excitement between him and Bale when the two get to share the screen without anybody else getting in their way.

Not that there aren’t good actors in this weighty lineup. It’s a kick to watch Robert Duvall, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Charlie Tahan, Timothy Spall, Toby Jones and Simon McBurney even in the littlest of scenes. I suppose Gillian Anderson was told to tap into whatever inner fanaticism she could, after all, there was a lot of surprising stuff going on in some upstate New York circles at the time. But I found her wild eyed ferocity out of sync with the rest of what aims to be a cool and calculating murder mystery.