by Philip Price
To preface this review: I'm not the biggest Guillermo del Toro fan. I like his stuff well enough, but I don't understand the fuss around him that has essentially made him a brand. It's easy to go back and say how much you enjoyed “Cronos” as it was an introduction to the director for many or how great “Pan's Labyrinth” was because it is in fact that (I still can't see del Toro ever hitting that kind of high again), but beyond his somewhat spotty resume what is there? I thought “Pacific Rim” was fine, but nowhere near great or even worth the excitement many a fanboy have lauded it with since the film’s release two years ago that have garnered it a sequel campaign for the ages (will it be made or not?!?!? Ahh who knows!!). With “Crimson Peak” though, I was intrigued from the moment gothic horror and del Toro's name were thrown together in the same sentence. It made perfect sense, but more it would be magnificent to see something of this genre made in the modern Hollywood system. If there were ever a chance for del Toro to return to the heights of ‘Labyrinth’ it would certainly have to be in this type of film, right? It's as if the horror genre is ingrained in the way the director thinks-each piece of writing attempting to elicit the horror of whatever circumstances his characters find themselves in with a flourish of the fantastical thrown in to boot. As penned by Del Toro and Matthew Robbins, “Crimson Peak” is an amalgamation of something Edgar Allen Poe might have thought up conveyed in the style of the horror films of the ‘50s and ‘60s. It is easy to say that the film could easily fall into the "all style and no substance" category, but it's also easy to see there is a lot going on under the surface here even if the film I saw isn't exactly the one I expected. Given the title seemed to be referring to the colossal gothic mansion that the trio of main characters inhabit I imagined this would be a tale of a haunted family heirloom that held plenty of secrets for the innocent Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) to discover, but while this element certainly plays into the film, “Crimson Peak” is more about desire and how the nature of such emotion can consume every inch of our being.
We are introduced to the young Ms. Cushing who is both an aspiring novelist and the daughter of a wealthy businessman (Jim Beaver) in turn of the century America. Edith is visited twice by the ghost of her deceased mother warning her of "crimson peak," but having no idea what this means Edith thinks nothing of it when she begins to fall for a struggling English aristocrat seeking investors for his clay mining invention. Enter Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his obviously creepy (and clingy) sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). While Edith is charmed by Sharpe's advances her father as well as childhood friend Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) don't share the same affections. Mr. Cushing sees the Sharpes as little more than spoiled brats whose previous failures to raise capital don't bode well for their future while McMichael is more or less jealous because Sharpe's advances only place him more firmly in Edith's friend zone. It is when Edith and Sir Thomas become officially romantically attached that Mr. Cushing takes things into his own hands by essentially kicking the Sharpes out of America by paying them off and forcing Thomas to break his daughter's heart. After a certain tragedy befalls Edith she tries to escape her past by falling into Thomas' arms and moving back to the Sharpe estate in England, named Allerdale Hall, after they are married. It's not soon after her arrival, though, that she begins to learn of Allerdale's haunted history. Lucille is all but pleasant to the young bride, ignoring Edith's attempts to form a friendship and only talking with her when she delivers her tea. With Thomas back to work on his inventions Edith begins to explore the dilapidated mansion discovering more secrets than she ever imagined along the way.
The common complaint against the film will be that it looks gorgeous, but that its narrative is standard ghost story stuff that has been tread many times before. It's a valid complaint even if it's the most popular one. I can understand where those who log this complaint are coming from and can even agree with it to a certain extent, but I found a lot to like here and frankly found it hard to concentrate on much of the negatives. For starters, the casting is impeccable. Wasikowska is more or less a given with this kind of material at this kind of level and she is more than capable, but the inspired pairing of Hiddleston and Chastain is what really makes the movie work. Hiddleston was born to play such a role. His slight pale frame and jet black hair that falls almost to his shoulders give off the perfect balance of handsome with a side of eerie. As Thomas, Hiddleston plays strongly into the privileged angle of his upbringing as part of a larger act that seems a constant struggle to simply please Lucille. It's clear from the first time we lay eyes upon the siblings that Lucille is the one that runs the show; that she is the dominant player in the web the two are spinning even if Thomas is the one doing all of the heavy lifting. As Lucille, Chastain is as cold as ice. She lets no one into her headspace and is especially prickly about those she lets into her house. When Thomas begins courting Edith it's easy to see the unease, the tension and even the jealousy that arises in Lucille's expressions. Chastain is a measured actress, taking an in-depth and careful approach to each role and with Lucille has come out the other end with a very deliberate and restrained performance that highlights each of Lucille's vulnerable, but concealed emotions. To play such a guarded person, but to still signal the audience on what might truly be going on inside a character's mind is a real gift and Chastain provides this kind of nuanced and calculated performance in spades making her Lucille the most striking and impressionable character while being the quietest of the bunch.
It's true though, the production design (credit to Thomas E. Sanders) and the uber-intentional color scheme and everything else that makes this a visual stunner is what really pushes “Crimson Peak” over the edge. From the outset we are privy to some of the most beautiful settings and photography we've seen all year. del Toro and his cinematographer, Dan Laustsen, capture the hustle and bustle of booming America in 1901 with a ripe vividness and with the widest lens possible so as to allow the viewer to drink in every inch of the beautifully constructed sets. The architecture of the time period is brought to the forefront as well, not only in the intimidating Allerdale Hall, but in the entire aesthetic of the first 45 minutes of the film. The train station and the men's country club where Mr. Cushing grooms himself are both particularly ornate and of an elegance that is worth drawing attention to. The climactic scene outside of Allerdale where the crimson clay of the grounds oozes through the white snow and Wasikowska's Edith wanders around in her blood-stained nightgown highlights this main complaint of the film being more visually affecting than emotionally resonant. The score from Fernando Velázquez is a highlight given its traditional orchestral arrangements feature darker tones underneath what we expect from music that typically accompanies this time period. While the Hammer horror influence comes in regards to the film’s visual style the story itself is more in line with something along the lines of Jane Eyre combined with the brutality of a Poe novel. The brutality of the film is especially striking in how bluntly it's presented, which is nothing new for a del Toro film, but it is especially jolting in these rather pristine settings. The gothic romance angle is certainly reminiscent of Charlotte Brontë's novel, but all of this combines to make a rather compelling story of those aforementioned desires and the ghosts that always tend to surround them, especially when they're forbidden. I expected this to be more of a haunted house tale with the uniquely created ghosts that haunt it taking center stage, but rather I received more of a love story that was born out of true desire overriding the obligation to continue making those assigned loved ones happy. Haunting for sure, but not always in the grand, gothic way I'd hoped it might be.