The Pale Blue Eye is less a macabre masterpiece, more a so-so episode of Inspector Morse

Christian Bale as Augustus Landor in The Pale Blue Eye - Scott Garfield/Netflix
Christian Bale as Augustus Landor in The Pale Blue Eye - Scott Garfield/Netflix

In 1830, the young Edgar Allan Poe was a military cadet at West Point, New York, from where he eventually court-martialled himself to pursue poetry. It’s in this intriguing historical setting that Louis Bayard set his 2003 whodunit The Pale Blue Eye, a wintry tale of multiple murders, tell-tale missing hearts and occult shenanigans with the whole academy implicated as suspects.

It’s a funny old yarn for writer-director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Hostiles, Out of the Furnace) to have dusted off for adaptation, even as a vehicle for his regular stalwart Christian Bale, who plays the grief-scarred detective Augustus Landor, and chooses to tamp his usual theatrics way down – he’s as gloomy and woebegone as Masanobu Takayanagi’s bleakly alluring landscape photography. The film is overcast in quite another sense, too: some serious names pop up in fairly routine bit parts, like Charlotte Gainsbourg as Landor’s barmaid squeeze and dear old Robert Duvall as a French expert in the dark arts.

Meanwhile, Poe himself proves an invaluable helpmeet in Landor’s murder investigations, albeit an eccentric one – shunned by his fellow cadets at mess, and lurking about with very much the deathly, cadaverous vibe you’d assume. This is a good showing from Harry Melling, rather in the intense-oddball tradition of his grandfather, Patrick Troughton.

He gets the bulk of the film’s florid literary dialogue; such is his way with it that you often wish Poe was the main detective, like Johnny Depp’s obsessive Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow. Along the way, Timothy Spall majors in his by-now self-parodic scowling as the academy’s superintendent, with Simon McBurney showing merciful restraint as his underling, a captain called Hitchcock.

Any mastery of suspense is what’s missing. Our best hope was for a cunning intellectual puzzle like The Name of the Rose, but it comes out way below that level, with dogged plotting that often resembles a so-so episode of Inspector Morse. Something’s off with the family of the coroner, Dr Marquis (Toby Jones) – definitely with his wife (a devious Gillian Anderson) and stricken daughter (Lucy Boynton). But the solution eventually tumbles out like sodden laundry dumped in the mud, and a further twist is equally mismanaged.

On a recklessly plump Netflix budget ($72 million), Cooper’s film is nothing if not dressed to the nines, with more leatherbound tomes festooning the sets than you can shake a stick at. One of Howard Shore’s routinely excellent moody scores helps our wend through the wilderness. But the irony, for a would-be-macabre mystery about hearts being ripped out, is a flatlined pulse and a puzzling absence of red meat.

15 cert, 128 min. In cinemas from Friday December 23 and on Netflix from Jan 6