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The Pale Blue Eye ★★★



Director: Scott Cooper

Cast: Christian Bale, Harry Melling, Gillian Anderson, Toby Jones, Lucy Boynton, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Timothy Spall

Release: 6th January 2023 (Netflix)

Scott Cooper and Christian Bale have proved a winning combination over the years, working together on 2013’s Out of The Furnace and 2017’s Western Hostiles. The pair reunite with The Pale Blue Eye, on Netflix 6th of January, a Gothic detective mystery set in 1830 that sees Bale’s Augustus Landor investigating a string of murders at the US military academy at West Point. One of those attending the academy happens to be one Edgar Allen Poe, here played by Harry Potter and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ Harry Melling. This is sure to pique the interest of Poe’s fans and makes this far from a standard detective story. The film adapts Louis Bayard’s novel of the same name.

Outside of Bale and Melling, there is star talent abounding, with Toby Jones, Gillian Anderson, Lucy Boynton, Timothy Spall, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Robert Duvall also appearing. There is also talent beyond the cast, with the great Howard Shore on scoring duties. Bale is reliably gruff as Augustus, with more to him than meets the eye, and his rapport with Melling’s Poe is enjoyable, with the two’s world views often contrasting and a different way of operating.

 It is frustrating that with so much talent in front of and behind the camera, the results are middling, the expectation might be that this would be a platform for its cast, but here they feel oddly constrained with many of the stars relegated to smaller parts and struggling to stand out among the ensemble. The mystery itself is interesting enough, and there are, as one would expect, several layers to pick apart and a shift in direction towards the denouement.

While the opening minutes generate a sense of interest with the murder victim’s heart removed and potential occultists at play, it often stagnates, and the pace slackens, preventing the momentum from pushing the film forward at a welcome pace. At 130 minutes, it could probably have done with a tighter runtime to allow its story to be more impactful.

The film captures the Gothic nature wonderfully, with a cold, hostile atmosphere lurking throughout and the sense of an inhospitable environment. Masanobu Takayanagi deserves a shoutout for making this a visually arresting film and generating the atmosphere. The strength of the visuals and Shore’s score compound some of the film’s flaws and lead us to think about what the film could have been.

The Pale Blue Eye is not without its merits; the sonic and visual atmosphere generated is first-rate, making this a dark, gothic film that often feels uncomfortable. With such a star-laden cast, it will indeed find an audience on Netflix, and the cast is undoubtedly doing their best, but the languid pacing and some of the narrative decisions rob the film of any chance of true greatness. Perhaps the link to Edgar Allen Poe also makes one feel this should be something first rate and it is a tad frustrating that that isn’t the case. Although there is enough to keep viewers engaged, it falls short of some of the cast’s best work.

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