The Pale Blue Eye is a gothic mystery movie that was released on Netflix on Jan. 6. It stars Christian Bale as Augustus Landor, the gruff old detective, and Harry Melling as a young Edgar Allan Poe. The movie is based on a novel by Louis Bayard of the same name.
The movie takes place at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1830, where a young cadet has been killed and the corpse’s heart removed. The people at West Point call in detective Landor to solve the case for them. He enlists the help of Poe, who is a young military cadet at the academy, to help him solve the murder.
On watching the trailer for this movie, I was initially excited to watch it. I love a good period piece, and murder mysteries are always fun. More particularly, seeing that famous Baltimore resident and gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe was a character had me pushing the play button.
I felt that the most memorable and well-done aspect of this movie was the gothic atmosphere. From the film’s very first shot, the thick fog and old-fashioned costumes brought you immediately to the 1830s. The wood studies, candle-lit rooms and quiet atmosphere all contributed to creating this effect.
My favorite part of The Pale Blue Eye was the sheer assortment of wonderful funny hats that the characters were wearing. Some were simple — just a simple bonnet or Victorian brimmed hat — but others were more playful. The military superintendent (Timothy Spall) wears a great bicorne, which is like a tricorne but with two points, and all of the cadets, Poe included, wear extremely tall-brimmed caps with a gold chain across the front and a giant feathery sausage sticking out of the top. I tip my proverbial hat to the costume designer.
Now, the reason why I just went on a long spiel about the movie’s fantastic hats is because there is very little else to compliment about this movie. Unfortunately, the film as a whole is just a boring, plot-hole-ridden mess.
The movie is just dull. The majority of the runtime is taken up by Landor and Poe going around the academy and having conversations with suspects and each other, but they never seem to make any progress with the case or say anything meaningful. You honestly could have watched the first 30 minutes and then skipped to the last 30 minutes of the movie without missing a single plot point.
The premise of the movie also made little sense. Why would a prestigious military academy not be able to investigate the murder of one of its own cadets? There was also very little reasoning behind Landor enlisting Poe’s help in the case, especially since Landor seemed to be the one making all the discoveries and deductions. It seemed as if the writers enjoyed the idea of a gruff detective and Edgar Allan Poe solving a murder but didn’t have any way to logically justify this situation.
Another aspect of the movie that was strange to me was the inconsistency of accents. It felt like nobody really knew what an 1830s American accent was supposed to sound like, so they just made up their own. Some people sounded quite modern, while others had quasi-trans-Atlantic accents. It was jarring and took me out of the movie several times.
The characters themselves were completely uncompelling. Landor’s character never strayed from the gruff, world-weary detective stereotype, and Poe’s character was disappointingly flat and uninteresting, despite his being a real and eccentric historical figure. The audience is never given any reason to care about these characters. They were given tragic backstories in an attempt to make them more compelling, but all it did was eat up the runtime.
Additionally, the movie’s treatment of female characters was disappointing. They didn’t serve any purpose in the plot beyond being the subjects of tragic backstories for the male characters or serving as love interests. If possible, they had even less character than Landor or Poe, having few personality traits beyond their good looks.
I really wanted to like The Pale Blue Eye. Ultimately, the movie was a mess. It had a confusing plot, uncompelling characters and was just boring. The best lines in the film were the lines of poetry that Poe recited, and those were just stolen from the real Edgar Allan Poe’s works. The film as a whole had no heart and no purpose, and I would not recommend it.