As years continue to pass in my career as a reviewer of movies, I have begun to realise one peculiar peculiarity of critics: we’re like snowflakes. Akin to the ice crystals whose shapes never match with the other, no two critics, despite agreeing with each other, would ever thoroughly agree with the other.

Case in hand: The Pale Blue Eye’s review by New York Times old-hand critic Jeannette Catsoulis, who’s most surprising — and fun to read observation — is that the circa 1830s-set murder mystery’s enjoyability stems from her realisation that it is a ‘hat drama’.

“Despite an impressively bleak and nifty twist,” Catsoulis writes, in the The Pale Blue Eye, “cadets teeter beneath helmets resembling giant coal scuttles, while their superiors barely prevent their ornate headgear from succumbing to gravity. (The ladies’ wigs, being scarcely less onerous to hold aloft, also qualify.) The real mystery here is how any of the actors made it through the movie without resorting to a neck brace.”

Funny, I never saw the movie this way — but, then again, it might be true, as it might be true for any movie set in the 1800s (hats and headgears were kind of a trending thing back then).

The hark back to the stylishness of the era often gives way to costume award nominations when award season hits…not that The Pale Blue Eye will likely be nominated for anything. But then again, with the current quality of movies on display throughout the year, who knows.

The Pale Blue Eye doesn’t raise a single hair in foreboding anxiousness

For the greater part of this adaptation of a novel by Louis Bayard, screenwriter-director Scott Cooper doesn’t have Augustus Landor (Bale) wearing many hats, literally or figuratively.

Landor is a widowed recluse living in West Point, New York, the oldest, continuously occupied military station in America, whose daughter, he professes, ran away. When Landor is not drinking away his woes, or finding temporary solace in the arms of local prostitutes, he is one hell of a detective, or so they say.

A murder of a young cadet at West Point brings the unwilling, reticent detective to the snow-whitened grounds on the bank of the Hudson River. The man, hung with his knees bent and feet touching the ground, had a surgeon-like incision that cleanly cut out his heart.

As happenings unfold in the story, the plot gets murkier with the trappings of the macabre and the supernatural. A beautiful woman (Lucy Boynton) — who, by the looks of it, is the only lovely creature in West Point — collapses with seizures (it happens to frail, tormented, sickly women in classic literature), while phantoms haunt Landor.

The USP (unique selling point) of The Pale Blue Eye, is Landor’s undertaking of a young cadet by the name of Edgar Allen Poe (Harry Melling), whose oddities make him the goofball of the academy (his dead mother talks to him, he says).

As literature buffs would know, the title of the film comes from Poe’s short story The Tell-Tale Heart, and film buffs may expect The Pale Blue Eye to be in the vein of The Raven if not Sleepy Hollow (the former was another supernaturally inclined murder mystery starring John Cusack as Poe).

Around midway of the two-hour-eight-minutes of Cooper’s film (I could swear it was over two-and-a-half hours), one feels that it would have benefitted from the closeness of these titles’ company.

The mystery is as frail as Poe’s scrawny built (Melling once played Duddly, the overweight brute cousin of Harry Potter in the movies), and Bale, as fine an actor as he is, doesn’t really bring any depth to his role. The film looks cinematic, and the tone is right, but the most fun one has — and I testify, it wasn’t because of the hats as Catsoulis says — is spotting the pool of talent Cooper has at his disposal.

One has fun spotting Robert Duvall or Gillian Anderson, or recognising Timothy Spall and Toby Jones, while wondering just how Poe’s inclusion assists the story, until a convenient reveal at the climax.

The novel was nominated for an Edgar award, and The Crime Writers’ Association Daggers award — and having no idea about the writer’s word-prowess, the mystery and the connection between the two souls, might very well be enticing on paper.

Here, despite the setting and the set-up and the star cast, it doesn’t raise a single hair in foreboding anxiousness. Poe would be disappointed.

Rated suitable for ages 16 and over, The Pale Blue Eye streams at nearly the top spot on Netflix

Published in Dawn, ICON, January 15th, 2023

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