Guillermo Del Toro tackles Gothic Romance in his latest feature Crimson Peak. Once more Del Toro is a master of creating stunning visuals and a beautifully elegant production design, but leaves much to be desired with a predictable story line that falls flat rather than thrill.
The story follows the budding novelist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) who clashes with publishers who refuse to invest in her work because she likens herself to Mary Shelley, and they feel more feminine content would be suitable. In contrast to the misogyny of the publishing world, her encouraging father attempts to nurture her progressive inclinations and supports her decisions like not going to the ball every girl wants to attend and staying home to write. But that quickly changes when she gets swept off her feet by the charming Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) who takes notice of her intelligence and creative beauty. He, along with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), are welcomed by the high society of New York in the hopes that one of their daughters could be married off to the illustrious Sharpe family.
Much to the dismay of pretty much everyone, Thomas instead sets out to make Edith his. Everyone thinks its kinda weird that this strange idealistic man and his brooding sister come to court one girl from a well to-do family and then switch sights to Edith. Even Edith’s friend
zoned Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) and her suspicious father strongly urge her to think it through before running away with this guy. But really, who’d listen to reason against Tom Hiddleston?
At this point of the film, you’re too engrossed in the stunning costumes and elegant scenery to question Edith’s choices. There’s even a whole conversation she and Lucille have about moths and butterflies that screams out the film’s plot in the first act. The eerie intensity of Chastain’s subtextual challenge goes over our ‘smart’ protagonist’s head without a visible reaction. Her father brutally dies, then after a moment of mourning she packs her bags and marries Sharpe pretty much right after. They also leave before she can even stop to consider that her dad died under pretty shady circumstances and Alan remains to discover that a private investigator had been hired to dig up dirt on the Sharpe’s but Edith’s already overseas by then.
Once at Allerdale Hall, they’re far away from any signs of life and nestled in snow in a dilapidated manor with a big hole in the middle of the ceiling. But hey–how else are you going to get the grim wonder of falling snow inside? It’s any girl’s dream honeymoon with a possessive third wheel of a sister who won’t stop offering tea. Gotta hand it to Chastain, who manages to give the comically incessant, ‘have some tea’ line her best to build up to her ulterior motives (surprise!).
While the manor dazzles your secret Gothic home fantasies with stunning architecture, intricate ornamentation, and ghosts in every hallowed hall, the script’s plot begins to decay along with the house. We trudge along the plot with Edith, who ‘frightfully’ interacts with the grotesquely gorgeous warning ghosts. The film’s specters are top notch Del Toro, fantastically detailed and practical creations that serve as the most interesting way the secrets of the house are unveiled.
The aim of Edith’s character was to be the strong lead of this Gothic Romance while Lucille would serve as her foil but the conflict falls flat due to Wasikowska’s limited range not reaching that of Chastain’s. But honestly, when has Mia Wasikowska had any emotional range? Only Hiddleston’s interactions with Chastain give this film any life and the Sharpe tragedy dwarfs Edith’s journey. You don’t root for the winners here, especially in the third act when Hunnam shows up to try to save Edith and you realize that he is supposed to be who’s side you’re on to win her heart. But once again, Hunnam’s character was never compelling enough to be a viable choice for any reason other than just being pretty. Hiddleston’s Sir Thomas Sharpe had the looks (that pumping ass) and the crazy charisma to dance circles around Alan.
Overall, Crimson Peak is worth a watch just for the imagery, lush cinematography, pulpy violence, and the Hiddleston/Chastain drama. It’s Del Toro’s best English language film, but by no means anywhere near his form in Pan’s Labyrinth. The use of conventional plots muddles the potential of his unique storytelling style and that may be due to his not yet finding the correct voice to collaborate on his visions with.