Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Charlie Hunman, Jim Beaver
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins
When the film’s protagonist shows the manuscript of a novel she has written to a would-be publisher, he expresses his confusion over what he labels as a ghost story. She replies that it is not a ghost story but a story with a ghost in it. Guillermo del Toro is no stranger to the depiction of supernatural beings in his films but to label them, along with other films of this type, as ‘ghost stories’ does not do them justice. The ghosts of these stories often come in figurative forms as well as literal and are not simply there to provide scares. Ghosts often appear in a certain place because of an emotional attachment they have and, while scary, are not manifestations of evil. Instead they can appear as manifestations of fear, loss, grief, pain and other themes we associate with death. True evil instead lies in the hearts of men, the ones who create these ghosts. The ghosts are not the focus of these stories but are instead there to reinforce and enhance the emotional journey or conflict taking place. This is the type of story that Crimson Peak is trying to tell.
The story is that of Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) who as a young girl was visited by her mother’s ghost and was warned to “beware of Crimson Peak”. Now a young woman, Edith is an aspiring author very much in the vein of Mary Shelley. She is also at the age when she must start thinking of marriage and catches the eye of the alluring English baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Edith’s father Carter (Jim Beaver) senses something awry about Thomas and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) and so tries to prevent any sort of a union between him and his daughter. When Carter dies under mysterious circumstances a grieving Edith weds Thomas and goes to live with him and his sister in the rotting, decaying estate of Allerdale Hall. Edith however learns that this estate is haunted by ghosts both literal and metaphorical and starts to suspect that this forbidding place might be connected to the warning she received all those years ago.
One thing that Guillermo del Toro has stressed while promoting this film is that it is not a gothic horror, but a gothic romance. The film certainly has elements of horror such as the haunting atmosphere, the sinister characters and elements of the supernatural. However the focus of the film is not on them but on the romance between Edith and Thomas and on the terrible secret that he and his sister share. In any case I cannot think of any director working today who is better at depicting gothic settings and themes than del Toro. The production and style of this film harkens back to such classics as The Innocents, Black Sunday and the works of Roger Corman. The antiquated sets, costumes and visuals are all wonderfully dark and mystifying. The film makes gorgeous use of colour with an ominous emphasis on red, reminiscent of the Hammer Horror films. The atmosphere del Toro creates, complete with the looming shadows, eerie environment and melancholy music, is thoroughly absorbing and is a refined homage to the fine line-up of gothic cinema that has preceded this film. I really wish I could say that the story and characters were worthy of them.
The central romance of this film just didn’t do it for me. I thought it felt quite melodramatic and flat and that neither character had much going for them despite the great talent behind them. Mia Wasikowska is a formidable actress and has done great work in the past but she keeps making the mistake of starring in films that require her to look impassive and disinterested at all the action around her. Her lack of personality made her journey less compelling and her motives less identifiable. Tom Hiddleston has shown that he knows how to do creepy and charming well and while that does come across with this character it just never felt to like there was any life beneath it all. I never felt any of the passion or fire between these two that is clearly supposed to be there. Jessica Chastain delivers a campy, over-the-top performance but at least she looks like she’s having fun doing it. Once you have a clear idea of who each person is the story itself becomes fairly predictable and steals much away from the film’s mysteriousness.
This is a film that I admired more than I enjoyed. I admire del Toro as a director whose inventive imagination, meticulous attention to detail and uncanny command of mood and tone has been employed to spellbinding effect in such films as Pan’s Labyrinth. The atmosphere he evokes in Crimson Peak is haunting and beautiful, just like gothic cinema should be. The characters however seem lifeless in comparison and the story less engaging. What results is a film that is moody and atmospheric on the outside but dispassionate and hollow within. Audiences might enjoy this film for the visual spectacle but the romance and the mystery left me feeling overall underwhelmed.