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The Pale Blue Eye movie review

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Edgar Allan Poe Comes Alive in The Pale Blue Eye

Scott Cooper’s evocative and bewitching gothic mystery is the definitive Edgar Allen Poe film.

The Pale Blue Eye Review

The realms of gothic mystery and prestige period piece seldom cross. Antithetical to each other, both teeter on the edge of greatness, as the latter strives to evade the pits of trashiness while the former hopes to ascend high above it. Scott Cooper’s superb, The Pale Blue Eye is the rare cross-section. Evocatively embracing its pulpy gothic framework while boasting stellar production, performances, and cinematography that all coalesce in a feast of earned emotion.

Set in West Point 1830, Cooper’s mystery begins with a dead cadet whose heart has been surgically removed. Fearing irrevocable damage to the burgeoning academy’s status, its leaders employ Augustus Landor (Christian Bale), a famed local detective, to solve the mystery. Fettered by the cadet’s code of silence, he recruits one of their own, the eclectic, harrowingly poetic Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling, in a brilliantly layered performance).

What could have been a slap-dash, uninspired exercise in historical fiction is rendered with a more introspective brushstroke, both tributing and retaining its famed literary figure’s sense of atmospheric power. Poe’s prose is very evocative by nature, using deeply accurate descriptions of setting and character to capture the human emotions that envelop violence rather than the object of violence itself. Thereby gleaning fascinating insights into the nature of human self-destruction. Something the John Cusack-led The Raven (2012) miserably failed at.

The Pale Blue Eye movie review
(Netflix)

Cooper’s screenplay (adapted from Louis Bayard’s novel of the same name) beautifully manifests that storytelling philosophy, using its direct incorporation of Poe to establish both an intensely moving, melancholic playground and as an immediate storytelling catalyst.

Landor and Poe’s detective duo is the beating heart of the film, superseding contrivances for something more fully fleshed. The banter between the two is utterly engaging, marrying poeticisms and grizzled insight to create a wonderful battle of wits that can only be described as a mental partnership. The dynamic results from Cooper’s interest in not only the mystery but also the enigma of its characters, who are all dealing with their own ghosts. Landor’s daughter and Poe’s mother are both ethereal specters who not only embroil their minds but nestle their way into the core of the mystery.

Moreover, Poe’s romantic subplot avoids becoming an egregious distraction. Made richly poetic, alluring, and utterly fitting of the real-life author, it poignantly underpins the central enigma, as Poe’s poetic premonitions about his love interest (Lucy Boynton) and the murder both wake the mind and stir the heart. Cooper and company capture the poet’s romanticist fervour with sly accuracy and bracing creativity.

Such powerful evocation and characterization are given force by the palpable performances. Bale proves less is more, commanding the screen with a nuanced turn that radiates conviction while being wholly witty and tactful. His mannerisms alone contain a world of grief, resolve, and covert cunning. Yet, it’s Melling who thumbs the greatest impression. Endearingly eccentric, he seamlessly shifts between forceful, harrowing reflection and bumbling comedy. At once, entirely reminiscent and utterly his creation, Melling cements the definitive portrayal of the legendary poet. Robert Duvall, Toby Jones, and Lucy Boynton all round out the cast with skill, lending gravitas to the overarching Gothicism and encroaching occultism.

(Netflix)

The Pale Blue Eye cements its world with visual prowess, employing a striking use of blue, black, and red that lends a tangible sense of texture and detail to the snowy period setting. Imbued with an eternal fog, Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi’s impactful use of shadows and candlelight establish a gothic domain that is equally familiar and entirely its own beast. Though dripping with style, Cooper’s direction is noticeably restrained, as the hidden, economic camerawork allows the immaculate production design, costumes, and atmosphere to do the heavy lifting. It’s a smart, creative choice that emboldens the intrigue, ensuring mood reigns supreme.  

With every artistic decision clicking perfectly into place, the third act’s swerve into the supernatural feels earned, never foregoing the very human element that lends it force. The shocking final twist succeeds for the very same reason, taking the form of a passionate, emotional exchange between two people brought together and then driven apart by one fateful moment. Though a tad overexplained, Cooper touchingly captures the pain of broken families, missed opportunities, and the ultimate respite of death.

Though overly reliant on its familiar score, The Pale Blue Eye strikes a rare balance between macabre mystery and prestige drama, embedding itself within a middle ground that never ceases to entice and evoke a powerful sense of pathos. Cooper’s slice of historical fiction not only gazes into the past but firmly ingrains itself within it, manifesting not only as a spellbinding mystery but as a cinematic embodiment of an enduring literary style.

– Prabhjot Bains

Written By

Prabhjot Bains is a Toronto-based film writer and critic who has structured his love of the medium around three indisputable truths- the 1970s were the best decade for American cinema, Tom Cruise is the greatest sprinter of all time, and you better not talk about fight club. His first and only love is cinema and he will jump at the chance to argue why his movie opinion is much better than yours. His film interests are diverse, as his love of Hollywood is only matched by his affinity for international cinema. You can reach Prabhjot on Instagram and Twitter @prabhjotbains96

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