We’ve reconvened the film club for Poe, poetry and The Pale Blue Eye. Was it worthy or cornea? Did it hit an (optic) nerve? (As usual, film club watches are super-spoilery.)
After yet another Good Bad Film Club hiatus (it takes us eight months scrolling the streamers to decide on a movie) Liz and I are back, though only with our second choice as we were too tight to shell out £7.99 for The Wolf Of Snowy Hollow.
Actually make that eight months plus an hour, as venturing back into Zoom for our accompanying movie chat, like two cavemen given an iPhone, I became stuck in a loop of password reset links and she gamely tried to do a version upgrade.
So here we are with The Pale Blue Eye, a chilly Netflix original that apparently cost the streamer $72 million, which is just a smidgen more than the average UK combined gas and electricity bill.
It’s 1830, during a freezing, snowy winter, when Leroy Fry, a young cadet from the West Point military academy, is found hanged from a tree in the icy upstate New York woods. His feet resting on the ground, his injuries are those of someone who struggled against a killer rather than killed himself. And his heart has been cut out, by someone who certainly knew what they were doing.
Wait — no elderly diehard refusing to leave their mountain home as sirens wail? No ex-besties fighting over a woman in a collapsing building? NO LAVA? I’ll admit it, The Pale Blue Eye is not our usual film club fare, favouring as we do overly-earnest disaster movies with a trope rate of one per minute, and costing either 25p or several hundred million wasted dollars to make. It has got potential though, being both overly earnest, and — hurrah! — having a spooky raven in it.
Be warned though, like a British winter, it is long, chilly and gloomy so you may want to whack the heating on for the duration (I’m kidding! Don’t sell your children on my account).
Retired detective Augustus Landor (Bale), a widower whose daughter has apparently run away, is summoned to the academy to solve the murder mystery. He takes as his unpaid assistant whey-faced cadet Edgar Allen Poe (Harry Melling), a misfit who communicates with his dead mother and is so at home in his morbid imaginings that he looks deceased himself — my son, wandering in mid-screening, asked me whether Poe was the dead body being investigated.
Various national and international treasures do their usual. Timothy Spall pops up with another lugubrious turn as an academy big cheese, while Toby Jones is Dr Marquis, its resident clinician and someone clearly hiding a secret about his family.
But most eye-popping is Gillian Anderson, apparently still channelling Margaret Thatcher from series 4 of The Crown, as his wife Julia Marquis. I suppose it’s one way of teasing Julia’s dark side: into black magic, cuts out human hearts, ends universal free school milk. (Not a spoiler, as it happened in 1971.)
In her favour she sports a succession of extraordinarily heavy, garishly-patterned dresses, all of which I would take off her hands to use as curtains in an attempt to reduce my $71,999,999 combined gas and electricity bill.
Central to The Pale Blue Eye is the relationship between the stoic, methodical Landor, and Poe with his flights of morbid fancy. Bale and Melling are superb together [inserts obligatory “who would have thought Dudley Dursley would be the Harry Potter breakout!” line]. Both characters are outwardly dead in their own way, and both — and I know this sounds wanky, but bear with me — are on different journeys. Poe becomes more alive as the mystery unfolds; for Landor it is the closing of a chapter.
Poe is in awe of Landor, practically likening him to Paddington when he asks Landor if he had indeed “solicited a confession with nothing more than a piercing look.” He is also clever, literally too clever actually, which is gently brought home to him by Landor when he claims to have deciphered a complete note sent to Leroy Fry, from a small fragment found in the body’s death-stiffened fist.
Another cadet, Ballinger, goes missing a few weeks later, and is found hanging from some rocks; not only has his heart been cut out — clumsily, this time — but he’s also been castrated.
Luckily, just as it looks like we’re getting a more gruesome version of Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, potential victim no.3, who would presumably have lost heart, genitals, and, what— his pineal gland, just to show off? — goes AWOL to avoid the fate of his two friends.
The missing hearts — animals are also found dead with hearts removed — leads Landor to delve into black magic, and particularly a dead witchfinder-turned-dark-arts-practitioner called Le Clerc.
You’d think with all this excitement what could go wrong? Sadly after a compelling start, The Pale Blue Eye, chillingly beautiful as it is, is rather a slog. An hour and one Zoom reboot in, I couldn’t believe we were only half way through. Liz and I didn’t even have the energy to Zoom Chat, though I did a Wordle.
The twist, because there’s always a twist, is not particularly jolting. You may not see dead people but you’ll probably see this one coming. Whodunnit? Landor the detective dunnit, avenging the death of a loved one — yes, it’s like The Mousetrap but with more snow. He is delivering justice for his daughter Mattie, who was raped by Fry, Ballinger and the runaway cadet at her first ball, and later threw herself off a cliff.
It certainly raises questions about Landor’s supposedly fatherly interest in Poe, when it turns out he’s been manipulating the otherworldly and unworldly poet, even accusing him of the murders at one point.
Landor did not remove Fry’s heart though. The Marquises are responsible for that: Dr Marquis; Julia; son Artemus (Harry Lawtey), another cadet; and daughter Lea (Lucy Boynton). The beautiful but sickly Lea, who suffers from life-threatening seizures, has been communicating with her dead ancestor, Le Clerc himself, using black magic to keep herself alive. The animals, and the amateurish removal of Ballinger’s heart, are Landor’s work, to deflect blame.
There’s some final fiery excitement when poor Poe ends up flat on his back in the Marquises’ ice house, his beloved Lea spouting cod-Latin while candles burn dangerously close to piles of hay, and a knife edges ever closer to his chest. (Why do devil worshippers only speak to “him downstairs” in Latin? Isn’t that exclusionary? Why not Geordie, or Spanish?) Luckily Landor gets there just in time, dragging Julia and Poe from the resultant fire, while Lea and Artemus die beneath the falling, burning beams.
So does Landor, like his first victim, ever face the noose for his crime? No, thanks to Poe, who works it all out then destroys his own evidence. Recuperating in the academy infirmary, he realises a note left for him by Landor matches a scrap of paper found on Fry, luring the cadet to a rendezvous. Visiting Landor in his stone cottage, Poe tells the detective what he knows, before burning the evidence and walking out. Landor takes Mattie’s hair ribbon to the cliff where she died and lets it blow away on the wind.
The Good-Bad Film Club rating:
Dreary and overlong, yet just about saved by Melling’s death-dreamy poet, Christian Bale stoically trudging through the snow in a top hat, and an accidental Donne Warwick earworm: it’s The Pale Blue Aye for the Good Bad Film Club.
Watch the trailer for Netflix’s The Pale Blue Eye:
Check out our other film club watches, from Law Abiding Citizen to Skyfire and much that is worse in between.