One word serves as the by-line of Guillermo del Toro's next feature: Beware.
Guillermo del Toro wants to sit you down and tell you a story. He is an eager host for your attention, enthusiastic in a way that is only possible for someone who truly believes his version of a tale is better than any you’ve heard before.
Around the campfire, one imagines that Del Toro is vibrantly evocative–supplementing his narrative with gestures, shadow puppets, striking imagery—and you might start to forget that you’ve already heard this story a thousand times. His films breathe life into established tropes (like giant robot WWE or Spanish Alice in fascist wonderland) and they are always captivating, but rarely surprising. Crimson Peak is no different, for better or for worse.
From the very start, the film’s main characters feel instantly familiar. Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is the lovely, bookish daughter of a wealthy businessman in early 20th century New York City. Burdened by the shackles of privilege and high society, Edith finds escape in a career writing ghost stories. She is everything we’ve come to expect of a heroine—smart, spunky, yet romantic—and it is no surprise when the mysterious Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) arrives at her father’s doorstep to charm her off her feet. Along with his sister Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain), Thomas is the last of a dying aristocratic lineage, and seeks investors for his mining invention in a desperate effort to avoid bankruptcy. After he is rebuffed by Edith’s father, both as a business partner and as a suitor for Edith, he nevertheless encounters the right circumstances to wed Edith and bring her back to his ancestral English estate, Allerdale Hall.
The story that unfolds is a hybrid of Gothic story elements, focused mostly on uncovering the dark secrets of the Sharpes. We follow along as Edith thumbs through old photos, explores forbidden rooms, and generally plays a puffy sleeved version of Nancy Drew with one tiny catch: she can see ghosts. The mangled apparitions are beautifully rendered and thrilling whenever they appear. Del Toro takes full advantage of the film’s “R” rating, at times pushing the boundaries of the expected gore in an otherwise tame romance/horror film. However, though they are the visual highlights of the film, the ghosts almost feel like decorative veneer tacked onto the walls of the story, secondary to the main plot.
It’s an easy film to follow because everything you’re supposed to feel and think is blatantly telegraphed. Mia Wasikowska is a competent lead, albeit as a character written as thinly as the rims on her gold-framed spectacles (subtext: this pretty girl also has brains!). Once she arrives in the decaying Allerdale Hall, she has little to do except settle in and warm up to Lucille, who seems inexplicably (or not..) jealous of Edith’s relationship with her dear brother. Chastain as Lucille is the clear scene-stealer of the movie, a perfect ice queen who turns red-hot with every spiteful glance. She operates at a different level than her co-stars, who seem dull and clunky in comparison. The pieces are set and all we are left to do is wait for everything to come crashing down.
Ignoring the numerous shortcomings in plot and dialogue, there is much to enjoy in Crimson Peak. The film occurs in visual peaks and valleys, as if Del Toro sketched out a dozen dramatic stills and then cobbled a film around those images. A flowing gown trails the distraught Edith as she glides down the stairs and bursts out the front door. A dark castle broods on a snow-covered peak, with red clay spewing from the earth like blood. The wispy silhouette of a woman in the hall appears and vanishes, shrouded in shadows and lurching like a robotic spider. The images are effective and moving, and the film is ultimately rewarding if appropriate expectations are first established.
Crimson Peak is a slight but gorgeous movie without a genre. It doesn’t quite have the scares of a horror movie or the emotion of a romance, but maybe that doesn’t matter. Scoot closer to the fire and start making a s’more, Del Toro has another story to tell.
Crimson Peak – Movie Review