The film “The Pale Blue Eye,” stars Christian Bale. It is set in a more rough version of the Hudson Valley around 1830 than exists now.
The cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi reproduces a beautiful grayscale. At moments, breaks up by splashes of blue from the ocean and the cadets’ blue uniforms at West Point Military Academy. This is where much of the drama takes place.
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Naturally, the story calls for a chilling atmosphere. A cadet called Fry is dead and with his heart ripped out at the Academy. The school’s administration worries that a scandal could be the school’s undoing. They hire a retired police officer to look into the matter.
Bale plays Augustus Landor, a widower whose almost-adult daughter moved out a couple of years ago. He lives alone in a cottage, has a dry sense of humor, and suffers from melancholy. He has a penchant for alcohol and has a sleeping arrangement with the kind-hearted bar owner (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Supposedly, he once coaxed a criminal into confessing to a crime with nothing more than a “piercing stare.”
Taking the hearts out of dead bodies is a highly suggestive act, and there will be more. In no time at all, Landor is nosing around in devil worship. A cadet who has been shadowing the detective does not think that is a good lead. His conviction that the murderer was “a poet” is unwavering.
This cadet is none other than the future poet Edgar Allan Poe, a sensitive misfit in a world of martial boasters. Poe, played by Harry Melling (who was also eerie in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”), is taken under Landor’s wing. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones), the academy’s doctor, and his family become the focus of the duo’s attention. These folks might be able to compete with the Addamses.
When Mrs. Marquis gets angry, she can break the family of china in an instant. Lucy Boynton plays Lea, the daughter, a talented pianist who suffers from “the falling sickness” and is constantly out of breath. Even if every other boy at West Point has already fallen in love with her, it’s inevitable that Edgar will too. Edgar’s morbidity fits him well, says Lea, so he reads her some of his poetry reflecting on “Lenore.” From there, we get the story’s title.
“The Pale Blue Eye,” is based on a novel by Louis Bayard. It is one of those mysteries with such a small cast of characters/suspects that its main plot feels like a feint, and that’s because it is. It’s worth noting that Bale didn’t volunteer for a role in which he only solves a couple of murders and aids in the formation of a famous American literary figure. After the ostensible major mystery resolves, “The Pale Blue Eye” gets down to business, offering us a full helping of a story about loss and a misguided attempt at closure. Bale’s character development, always nuanced and a little cryptic really blossom here. Sears in the end. In paying tribute to the real-life individual who would become, among other things, the arguable founder of American detective fiction, the film also shines a chilling light on the shadowy corners of the human psyche.
The Pale Blue Eyes is now streaming on Netflix.