It’s the year 1830 and, at West Point military academy, a student has been found hanged. More puzzlingly, his heart has been removed post mortem. Veteran detective August Landor (Christian Bale) is recruited by Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) and Superintendent Thayer (Timothy Spall) to investigate. He is somewhat surprised to discover that he has an ally amongst the cadets in the gangling form of Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling), who – as well as exhibiting a flair for writing dark poetry – is also an amateur sleuth. Soon, another murder occurs…
Director Scott Cooper has worked with Bale before (most memorably on the hard hitting western, Hostiles), but The Pale Blue Eye, based on a source novel by Louis Bayard, is a much more laid back affair, handsomely filmed and starring a clutch of accomplished character actors in minor roles. However, the women in particular have a thin time of it. Any film that offers the likes of Gillian Anderson and Charlotte Gainsbourg such thankless, underwritten roles should hang its head in shame.
Ultimately, The Pale Blue Eye is a two-hander between Bale and Melling (the latter having a field day as the wide-eyed, melodramatic young author). The result is an atmospheric story, with a distinctly Gothic flavour and some genuine surprises hidden within its twisty-turny plot – so it’s a pity that the eventual solution to the mystery is so risible – and that the reasons for the murders should prove to be so clumsily reductive about both disability and violence against women.
Poe aficionados will doubtless have fun spotting the various references to the great author’s work, but ultimately this feels like a missed opportunity.