I read a book that was gifted to me many years ago called "Quoth The Crow", by David Bischoff. I enjoyed it, but I also recognised that it wasn't great. It just happened to tie into things that I enjoyed; namely The Crow and Edgar Allen Poe. I also quite enjoyed The Raven, a film that pits Poe (played in that movie by John Cusack) against an inventive serial killer, despite also recognising that it wasn't great. It was entertaining, and fun, but not great. The Pale Blue Eye isn't great, yet it has a great cast and the makings of something great. So why did I dislike it quite so much?
Christian Bale plays Augustus Landor, a detective who is hired to investigate the murder of a young military cadet. Landor soon meets a young, striking, Edgar Allen Poe (Harry Melling). Poe is insightful, but also soon comes under suspicion himself. Getting to the bottom of the mystery may not lead to a happy ending for either of our two main characters, and they will surely ruffle some feathers on their way to unmasking the killer, who murders once again while the investigation is ongoing.
Based on a novel of the same name by Louis Bayard, writer-director Scott Cooper gives himself a big helping hand by casting the film well. Bale remains an undeniably effective and talented performer, but he seems to settle into a bit of a rut nowadays when aligning himself so closely to the likes of Cooper, and David O. Russell (of course). Melling is a good fit for the role of young Poe, and the supporting cast includes such notable luminaries as Timothy Spall, Simon McBurney, Toby Jones, Robert Duvall, and Gillian Anderson. Unfortunately, most of them are sorely underused, leaving time and space for performances from Harry Lawtey, Lucy Boynton, Fred Hechinger, Joey Brooks, and Charlotte Gainsbourg, as well as many others populating a tale that paradoxically delivers far too much and far too little. You get a wealth of talent unable to shine, you get a murder mystery without any real tension developed, and you get Poe as a main character without making it feel as if him BEING Poe is really relevant to the premise or plotting of the film.
I would rush to say if the script was the big weakness of this film, and it could certainly do with some tweaks and improvements here and there, but I think the biggest problem is the way that Cooper half-heartedly serves up a film that he doesn't seem passionate about. The thriller side of things doesn't thrill, the drama is even less engaging, and there's no sense of anything coming together as it should. That wouldn't be so bad if Cooper had decided to at least sprinkle some fun into the mix, but he doesn't do that either. The Pale Blue Eye, lacking any one successful element, cast notwithstanding, just feels like a few people showing how smug and clever they can be, all while onlookers (and that includes other cast members) become increasingly bored and exasperated.
It looks nice, generally, but that's not enough. This is a movie with the money and resources to do more than just look nice. A basic level of technical competence is the minimum to be expected, and it's what you get (including a score by Howard Shore). But you don't get more than that. The Pale Blue Eye = the bare minimum.
If you have enjoyed this, or any other, review on the blog then do consider the following ways to show your appreciation. A subscription/follow costs nothing.
It also costs nothing to like/subscribe to the YouTube channel attached to the podcast I am part of - https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCErkxBO0xds5qd_rhjFgDmA
Or you may have a couple of quid to throw at me, in Ko-fi form - https://ko-fi.com/kevinmatthews