It’s a trope as old as time. A grizzled gumshoe fighting his demons of alcoholism and bereavement as he drops into a buttoned-up institution to crack some skulls and find a violent killer. Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) is a pulp-ish detective grimacing and poking his nose around West Point military academy in the snowy winter of 1830.
Given the presence of demons, though, who better to have as a sidekick than a morbid, occultist weirdo such as Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling) himself? Poe, you see, just happens to be a cadet at the facility, as he was for a time in real life. The growing number of ritualistic murders are panicking the top brass but Poe has insights enough that Landor takes him on as an eccentric assistant.
The photography throughout flickers like an animated daguerreotype, and scenes are dimly lit and are evocative of a gloomy outpost. This gives it the vintage ambience of a Christmas ghost story, and one that Poe could easily have written. There are certainly enough newly-liberated human hearts flying around to inspire one of his gory fables.
Bale brings the familiarity of a world-weary dick to the proceedings, and it’s a restrained performance as he navigates the formality of the academy and the unseemly nooks of its underbelly. It’s Melling, though, as an excitable, almost Holmesian puzzle-solver that steals every scene. He strikes a pallid, poetic but strikingly eloquent presence in what is essentially as much a Poe origin story as it is a whodunnit.
Some great British acting talents wrestle with the unusual accents of the time period and geographic location, with Toby Jones and Timothy Spall as a suspicious coroner and crusty general respectively. Lucy Boynton does great work as a cynical beauty with a good line in dramatic seizures but it’s Gillian Anderson as haughty matriarch Julia Marquis who matches Melling’s oddness with some truly memorable melodramatic outbursts.
The script is charmingly verbose, and put me in mind of the TV show Deadwood. People aren’t ‘falsely accused’, they ‘suffer an unwarranted calumny the likes of which are an assault on their dignity’...that’s not a direct quote but you get the gist. If you like flowery dialogue, methodical procedures and vaguely silly twists, then it’s compelling enough to warrant a couple of hours. I’d love to see Melling as Poe in a franchise of his own, but for now, these tell-tale hearts will have to suffice. (PO)
The Pale Blue Eye is playing at the Prytania Canal Place Theater
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