- Katie Bell
The Pale Blue Eye (2022)
The Pale Blue Eye, based on the novel of the same name by Louis Bayard, reverently alludes to the works of Edgar Allan Poe. But for a film that demonstrates such reverence to an historical author, this movie sure discredits him a whole bunch. I mean, no spoilers here for The Pale Blue Eye (no mean feat for a mystery film review by the way), but I will divulge that in this film, Poe has something in common with Cole Sear...
That's right! I'm not going to spoil The Pale Blue Eye in this review, but I am going to refer to the internet's most famous spoiler for The Sixth Sense (1999).
Are you getting it yet? Perhaps I should be more candid:
But enough about Poe getting some help with his poetry and prose from his mother. To be fair, to my knowledge, or so far as I can tell, she doesn't dictate any of his great classics, so I suppose we can still give credit where credit is due for those.
It's 1830 and we are in Hudson Valley, New York. Detective Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) is hired by the United States Military Academy, in West Point, to investigate the murder of a cadet. And honestly, I wish employment were this easy in the twenty-first century. They roll up to his house, pick him up, take him to the academy and then recite him his own resume. Unsurprisingly, he's hired! Shortly thereafter, we receive a description of the crime, and my grammar aficionado senses are tickled, when a character correctly uses the phrase, "hanged himself". Finally, we are given the stakes: Christian Bale must, "Save the honour of the United States Military Academy". And by God, the stakes have never been so high! Enter Dudley Dursley (Harry Melling) with an aggressive southern accent and our first clue: the killer had to be a poet!
What follows is what can only be expected from a crime, horror, mystery film: Landor tours the campus. He meets and interviews a variety of cadets, including Cadet Laryngitis. He touches ladders and dirt and candle wax. He finds a spooky circle and is told by an expert on the occult that it "can only be a magic circle". And of course, all the while, he converses with a young Poe, who he has enlisted to help him with this investigation.
Visually, this film is very interesting. Contrast is used effectively to really highlight light and shade. It’s somewhat subtle in the production design and location choices. However most viewers will probably notice that a great number of scenes are filmed in either striking daylight in the snowy outdoors, or indoors and lit by candlelight.
Pictured: Light and Shade.
More noticeably, the filmmakers have played with shadow. Innumerous times, when characters appear on screen their faces are half-illuminated. For me, this symbolism really highlighted the light and shade of people, and the fact that nobody is wholly good or bad. Then again, my gut instinct says that it could merely be a physical manifestation of the Edgar Allan Poe quote that opens the film: "The boundaries which divide life from death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?"
Pictured: More Light and Shade.
At one point there’s a scene in the woods, that is largely dark and foggy. In this scene, there are some moments when the two central characters become so dark that they are silhouettes, almost in the style of shadow puppetry. It doesn’t last long, but it is visually interesting, particularly against the whiteness of the fog.
Pictured: The most light and shade.
Either way, I really appreciated these aesthetics. Fittingly too, when talking about the crime, the coroner…or the 1800s equivalent, says, “He’d need a lot of light”. Implying that this dark deed had to be done in brightness. Light and dark, everyone. It’s a prevailing theme in this picture, and it is certainly used well to create an ominous mood.
I wish I were more of an Edgar Allan Poe fan, as I feel like I may have actually gotten more out of the film if I were. Although this movie is a work of fiction, there are a number of allusions to Poe's body of work. There's the very overt quote at the start of the film, which comes from his story, The Premature Burial. There are clear references to The Tell-Tale Heart throughout, which one might expect, given the title of the film. There's a fictitious poem that movie Poe delivers in the film, that uses the name "Lenore", and though it isn't a published work of Poe's, internet sleuthing has led me to discover that real-life Poe wrote a different poem entitled Lenore. And at one point in the film, there was a raven...which made me think, is that...THE raven? Or is that just a random raven? The point is, if I were more of a Poe fan, I would probably know. So if you like Poe, give this film a watch. And I have written the name Poe so many times in this paragraph, that now I no longer see Dudley Dursley, now I see this:
Pictured: Apparently this is Po not Poe.
What is hopefully becoming very clear to you is that The Pale Blue Eye effectively recreates a mood that is all too familiar if you have read the literary works of Edgar Allan Poe. In addition to everything that I've already said, we also get some flashbacks, a first date in a cemetery ("a lovely spot" by the way), at least one jump scare, some commendable acting and a decent mystery story to follow and sleuth.
Was this my favourite film ever? Not really. If it weren't a Netflix film and I could purchase the physical media, I probably wouldn't. But was it worth a one-off watch on a Sunday afternoon? Definitely. Was it a good way to start 2023? Certainly.
Now to quote The Pale Blue Eye, "I hope you won't object to accepting our thanks," for reading to the end of this review. I've decided it's my new favourite way to thank people, and I'm hopeful that one day someone responds with "I do object". I've no idea why, it just seems humorous in my brain.