Christian Bale is a terrific actor. He can convey so much by doing so little. Consider the scene in The Pale Blue Eye where his character, Augustus Landor (a detective), sees a woman fall from a cliff. A lesser actor might have resorted to wailing to show us the extreme pain he is going through in this scene. But Bale does not need to exaggerate his gestures. Instead, he displays distress by slowly freezing his face. You sense that a pool of sadness has burst through his countenance.
On the other end of this performance spectrum is Harry Melling as Edgar Allan Poe. Melling embellishes his mannerisms to show how much of a romantic he is as the poet Poe. If Bale is like a rock, then Melling is like a feather. You can sit through most of The Pale Blue Eye by comparing (and enjoying) the performances of both Bale and Melling.
The movie opens with the death of a West Point cadet. The murderer has not only hanged him but also taken his heart away. Augustus is hired to investigate the case, and he recruits Poe to get information on other cadet boys. As the story progresses, more dead bodies come to the surface. The missing hearts suggest occult practices, and it's told to us in the beginning that the killer is strong. Meaning: It cannot be a woman. Uh-huh.
The Pale Blue Eye is beautiful to look at. The snowy landscapes and the shadowy, candle-lit nights - all add up to create a pretty picture. Because that's all the director, Scott Cooper, can do here: Make good-looking images. The cinematographic compositions do nothing more than record the action and deliver the visuals. The dialogues are pleasing to the ears, but they are also disposable. In fact, you forget many of the lines (and the poetry) as soon as the movie finishes. Nothing sticks, which is something you can say about emotions.
The Pale Blue Eye deals with great feelings of love, pain, grief, and heartbreak. It's about lovers who don't end up together. It's about fathers who are unable to save their daughters. Yet, these intense sentiments get muffled in this bland production. The actors do their job as well as possible. It's the film that wastes their talents.
The movie is devoid of a creative touch. Cooper proves himself to be unimaginative here. He tethers the film close to the script, leaving no room for improvisation or invention. It doesn't help that the scenes don't seem to be naturally linked with one another. We mechanically move from one event to the next, and you always feel that a lot of scenes have been edited out from the final cut. Characters plan to visit a cemetery on a particular day, and we see them walking at the location in a few seconds. The pages from a diary are deciphered using water, but we are not told how the character arrived at this method. Augustus comes out of nowhere when Poe is attacked and saves him from the angry man. How did Augustus know where to find Poe? Was he tailing him? Did he come across him by accident? There is a wide gap between the scenes, making them exist in isolation.
There is one moment where the movie comes to life. That happens when Julia (Gillian Anderson), at the dining table, screams, "Stop it!" and leaves the room, not before breaking her plate in exasperation. Anderson imbues her action with traces of comedy and exudes a sparkling energy that is sorely missing from the rest of the film. You put two and two together when you see a girl coughing and remember the scene where she was crying. If The Pale Blue Eye had planted more clues in this manner, we would have at least enjoyed playing detectives. The scene near the end between Poe and Augustus works fine because of Bale and Melling's acting. There is a good film in here somewhere waiting to be discovered and filmed by expert eyes. Cooper, unfortunately, is not that specialist.
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