Movie review: ‘The Pale Blue Eye’ spies a badly written mystery flop

An overacted, badly written, murder mystery dud, “The Pale Blue Eye” takes its title from a quote from Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 Boston-set story “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Poe himself is also a character in the film, an adaptation of the 2006 novel by Louis Bayard adapted by writer-director Scott Cooper (“Antlers,” “Black Mass”). The film’s action is set beneath an iron winter sky in 1830 at the United States Military Academy, West Point, where Poe is a cadet, in a snow-covered, densely-wooded Hudson Valley, New York. After an apparent suicide of a cadet, academy leaders Colonel Thayer (Timothy Spall) and Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) hire celebrated, detective Augustus Landor (a bearded Christian Bale) to get the bottom of the dark, blood-spattered mystery.

As it turns out, the body of the deceased was mutilated by someone after death. The victim’s heart was “carved from his chest,” Upon arrival at the academy, Landor, a widower whose only child, a daughter named Mathilde “ran off,” meets the academy’s physician Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones). The doctor’s entire family resides at the academy, including his fraught wife (an apoplectic Gillian Anderson), cadet son Artemus (Harry Lawtey) and beautiful, ailing daughter Lea (Lucy Boynton).

Landor, whose first name recalls Poe’s fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and other stories, claims that he does not read poetry or fiction. He enlists Cadet Poe (Harry Melling aka Dudley Dursley in the “Harry Potter” films) to work for him undercover.

On the whole, Poe would rather be at the local pub, where Landor’s mistress Patsy (an underused Charlotte Gainsbourg) tends bar. When Poe isn’t drinking heavily, he is staring, oddly unblinkingly, at Lea, whom he loves in spite of the seizures that grip her occasionally. In an effort to make him sound poetic, Cooper, who adapted the novel, makes Poe sound a lot like an idiot. When you aren’t wondering, “Who did the frightful hair?” or “Who designed these horrible frocks?” you’re counting the mounting dead. It is, ahem, Hitchcock’s unpleasant task to announce each new one. A serial killer is afoot.

Who could it be? Did I care? “The Pale Blue Eye” makes a decent effort to incorporate some of Poe’s favorite things into the plot. Thus, we get code-breaking and other types of subterfuge. Poe is assigned to decipher writing on a fragment of paper found in a victim’s hand. We see Landor fussing with mementos of the runaway “Mattie.” We learn that a satanic ceremony was conducted in the ice house. We visit Landor’s “old friend” and mentor Professor John Pepe (91-year-old Robert Duvall), who identifies a “magic circle” and mentions a rare book of spells by the witch hunter Henri Le Clerc. Hmm, didn’t I spy that among someone’s “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore?” Most of the action is confined to the architecturally impressive academy and surrounding roads, cliffs, river and woods. Poe and Lea meet in a cemetery, something the real Poe liked to do. Poe claims to be haunted by his dead mother, who was born in Britain, like a majority of the members of this cast. The tediously plotted facts pile up. Great actors play characters we do not like one bit. Poe’s life is put in danger, even though we know he died in Baltimore. Eventually, “The Pale Blue Eye” closes. Nevermore.


2 stars (out of 4)

Rated R (for some violent content and bloody images)

Running time: 2:28

How to watch: Now in theaters; on Netflix Jan. 6