The Pale Blue Eye
While the omens weren’t good for The Pale Blue Eye, I nevertheless hoped for the best. Attempting to refashion authors as the heroes of yarns – HG Wells actually time travelled! – has never been particularly satisfactory and always struck me as coming from a profoundly misplaced dramatic sense. Even that Wells one (Time after Time), well-regarded as it is, didn’t really do it for me. Poe seems to be a veritable smorgasbord of writers’ inspirations, writers inspired to write about a writer and doubtless drop in lots of references to their literary hero while attempting to refashion him as a genre one. The Pale Blue Eye doesn’t quite do that – make him a hero – but I came away thinking his presence added nothing to its murder mystery.
We already had a “Poe tracks down a killer” movie a decade ago, of course (The Raven). One I’ve succeeded in avoiding thus far. The Pale Blue Eye is at least ahead on points in casting the idiosyncratic Harry Melling (in contrast to the decidedly starry John Cusack). It also has literary pedigree, based as it is on Louis Bayard’s 2003 novel of the same name (Bayard appears to have a thing for historical fiction featuring historical figures and those of historical literature; if you want to find out what happened to Tiny Tim when he grew up, he’s your man). Bayard picks up on Poe’s attendance of West Point military academy, then established for little more than a quarter of a century, and suggests a murder(s) on the grounds as a threat to its continuance.
The actual Poe intentionally had himself dismissed from West Point via court-martial and presumably wasn’t as unpopular as Melling’s incarnation, as his fellow cadets helped finance the publication of his third volume of poetry. Being as The Pale Blue Eye is set in 1830, we never get on to the part of Poe’s life where he marries his thirteen-year-old cousin (although this may not have been as Jerry Lee Lewis as it sounds). Rather, we find him assisting Christian Bale’s detective Augustus Landor in his investigation of a seemingly ritual murder of a West Point cadet. Poe is full of poetic fettle and eccentric ticks – “filled with senseless fantasies” as Augustus notes – such as receiving messages from his dead mother.
Scott Cooper is one of those so-so directors who manages to keep working regardless of the mediocrity of his output. Probably because he’s an actor’s director – as an actor himself – he continues to find funding for his projects despite only his first feature, Crazy Heart, being a discernible success. This is his third collaboration with Bale, and it’s redolent of the kind of deliberate, stolid pacing that has characterised his work thus far.
It looks great, owing to regular DP Masanobu Takayanagi’s wintry cinematography lending the proceedings a genuinely transportive quality (at times, I was minded of that great period-sleuth pastiche The Name of the Rose). And the early stages of the investigation, as Landor shows his acumen and meets with resistance from a nervous West Point (concerned that bad publicity will be grist for political opponents to divest them of their tentative status), but what tension there is in the proceedings gradually dissipates, in part due to the shift in focus from Landor to Poe’s furtive longing for Lea Marquis (Lucy Boynton), the sickly daughter of the academy’s called-upon examiner Dr Marquis (Toby Jones).
There aren’t enough twists, suspects or red herrings to make The Pale Blue Eye a truly engrossing murder mystery, with suspicions quickly resting on the Marquis family, and specifically son Artemus (Harry Lawtey, bringing an obnoxious, Ryan Philippe quality to the cadet). Gillian Anderson has a glorified, plate-smashing cameo as the doctor’s wife. Lo and behold, it turns out the hearts extracted from cadets are being used in a rite to cure Lea (their family history includes an infamous diabolist). None of this is terribly persuasive, so what a relief it is to find, fifteen minutes from the end, that there’s a twist. Right?
Well, no. For a twist to be effective, it ought to be a combination of clever, surprising and germane. As a view, you need to be able to say “Oh, right….” The Pale Blue Eye’s just feels like an idle addendum, one that makes the prior conclusion seem all that much more contrived as a result. Turns out, it was Landor all along, taking revenge on the three (he only gets two of them) cadets who raped his daughter (who then committed suicide). Luckily for him – and unluckily for us – his initial victim’s body was seized by the Marquis (they only use the hearts of the already dead, quite moderately. Well, until Poe’s on the block…) and the resulting occult aspect led to Landor being summoned to look into the case. Double the daft solution just means double the dissatisfaction, alas.
Which is a shame, as The Pale Blue Eye is handsomely mounted and well performed all round. Timothy Spall, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Robert Duvall (92 and still kicking, so it seems) lend reliable support. Christian services us with a patented Bale beard. Perhaps the issue here is partly that you don’t set a murder yarn at the heart of the establishment and then entirely absolve it. Last time that happened, we got the weak swill of The Presidio. We all know depraved things go on at military academies (see the actual Presidio and Michael Aquino). If The Pale Blue Eye had joined that up, in much the way The Name of the Rose did the Church and its secrets, it might have yielded something satisfying.