Stately and elegant, yet also a bit trashy and unquestionably gonzo. So comes Crimson Peak, a period soap opera from director Guillermo Del Toro that melds the romantic with the horrifying. A paradox on terms of influences and tones, a piece that feels stitched together from an endless variety of cinematic and literary antecedents yet at the same time feels entirely its own thing- an acid-tinged version of The Age of Innocence perhaps or a more self-aware reboot of Rebecca maybe? Whatever the case this is confident, striking, beautifully filmed work- one that registers as a synthesis of Del Toro’s art-house horror creed (Pan’s Labyrinth) and bloated mainstream excess (Pacific Rim) and one, should a moviegoer succumb to its eerie cinematic charms, that may enthrall and bewitch for a long while after.
“Ghosts are real,” purrs Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) at the start of the picture. She means this from personal experience having been haunted as a child by the specter of her deceased mother. Ghosts, literally and figuratively, take up quite a bit of brain space in Edith, as she is the inventor of short stories that dwell in the realm of the supernatural. Del Toro presents Edith as an uncommon woman in Victorian-era Brooklyn- she speaks herself that she’s akin to Mary Shelley and is none too thrilled when a publisher condescendingly suggests that there should be more romance in her writing. He does compliment her penmanship however. Edith is perfectly content writing while tending to her father Carter (Jim Beaver, Deadwood) whilst ignoring society parties and the sweetly benign advances of studly town doctor Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam).
Romance has a way of sneaking up on Edith though with the arrival of Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an English baron who mysteriously shows up in town. From the moment Edith first sees Thomas, there’s something that fascinates her- she notices his suit is impeccably tailored but about ten years old and his shoes are hand-made but well-worn. Hiddleston invests such a charm and ambiguity in Sharpe, it’s easy to see why someone as seemingly practical as Edith might be caught off guard. Is he an angel or the devil himself? A swoon-worthy waltz between the two seals up the expected- the two are married not too long after. This is a movie, after all, that lives purely in its own particular cinematic universe, so while it may take a little bit to sync up with Crimson Peak‘s peculiar rhythms, surely Del Toro’s vision will irritate as many as it captivates.
The mystery, as well as the horror, quadruple once the couple move into Allerdale Hall, Sharpe’s centuries-old English estate- a marvel of production design- that is ornate and grand, yet falling apart. The red marble is bleeding through the floors and there’s a giant hole in the ceiling where leaves and snow fall- it makes no sense in reality, but is bewitching to watch, much like everything else in Del Toro’s playhouse. There’s more afoot as Edith encounters ghosts themselves inside the house- at one point she asks her beloved has anyone died in the house and Thomas shrugs, of course as its nothing. A deeper terror might lie in Thomas’ sister Lucille (a morosely deadpan Jessica Chastain), the even more mysterious third wheel of the house. Lucille is sort of the Lady Danvers of Allerdale, yet her loyalty to her brother takes on even more sinister forms as the movie marches to its bloody conclusion.
In truth, the plot points of Crimson Peak aren’t quite the point. Del Toro and screenwriter Matthew Robins (who also worked on Mimic for the director) contort and play with horror and romantic troupes in ways that are sometimes expected, sometimes playful and sometimes utter nonsense. It’s honeymoon horror story mixed with woman in jeopardy flick meets creaky house mystery but it’s the mad brio that Del Toro’s sets them in that make up the fun. Crimson Peak is one of the most spectacularly bent pieces of Hollywood eye candy in ages- Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula comes to mind- and Del Toro and his maestros behind the scenes use every cinematic tool- art direction, costume design, practical visual effects, CGI- to terrific effect. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that the risk-adverse Hollywood of now would ever put money towards such a mad genre/director-driven fun house freak show as this. Then again Universal Pictures, the distributor behind Crimson Peak, has the billion dollar success stories of Jurassic World and Minions as a just-in-case insurance policy.
Del Toro’s touch even has a way of unleashing inspired turns from his actors, each paler than the next. Wasikowska, most well known as Alice in Tim Burton’s re-jiggered Alice in Wonderland, makes a striking lead as the modern thinking Edith. Her costumes are ruffled to the max, but it’s hard to shake her intensely steely stare. There’s a very real romantic allure to her scenes with Hiddleston, who plays passive as the script dictates. It’s the ladies though that own the movie however- it’s telling and rather refreshing that the climatic bloodbath is fought by women. It’s Chastain who seems to be having the most fun here. Brittle, menacing and sharply against type (if such a thing exists for an actor of such ubiquity), Chastain has the difficult task of maintaining a poker face throughout much of Crimson Peak while still exuding a sense of power and mystery; that she manages so without falling too deeply into camp is a quite thing of wonder.
That’s the wonder of Crimson Peak to be perfectly honest. The whole thing could- a probably should- fall apart but stays afloat thanks to the endless imagination of movie makers obsessed and transfixed with the powers and beauty of the cinema.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
While not for everyone, those who succumb to the visual and poetic beauty of Crimson Peak may well come away transfixed. An elegantly mounted gothic romance/ghost story that takes its roots from a bounty of literary and cinematic troupes yet one that never cedes to homage or, thankfully, camp. Crimson Peak, under the bent yet sturdy direction of Guillermo Del Toro and featuring three strong performances at its center comes across as strikingly and gorgeously it’s own peculiar beast. The film doesn’t quite match Del Toro’s previous triumph Pan’s Labyrinth on terms of story or emotional impact, but nonetheless represents some of his strongest filmmaking to date.