Baddie: Nature v. Nurture
Lesson: Have a long engagement.
NOTE: Chris, of Second Breakfast, has written a rebuttal post to my critique of Crimson Peak. Read it here.
In the time that has passed since I watched Crimson Peak, it’s been very difficult to pin down exactly how I felt about it. I love Guillermo del Toro, and I love beautiful ghost stories and mysteries and all of the pieces of Crimson Peak, and yet I find myself…listless.
I think the first moment I disengaged is when Tom Hiddleston’s character Thomas Sharpe glides into our heroine’s (Edith, played by Mia Wasikowska) and derails about ten minutes of character development. We are introduced to Edith as an anomaly of Victorian sensibilities, a ghost-story writer with professional ambitions and no desire to date or be wooed. She is scorned by publishers, snubbed by socialites, and dresses in quieter fashions that still betray her wealth and stature. Then Thomas, who Edith had been making fun of minutes earlier, shows up and compliments her writing. Boom, he has her. And the audience, perhaps thinking they were in for a plucky Victorian anti-romance with horror and ghosts, become painfully aware that this is instead a trope-ridden romance that happens to have ghosts and a little ‘twist’ at the end.
It was about the 40 minute mark that I realized with horror that I did not like this movie. I was not enjoying it. I was flabbergasted. Del Toro is a masterful storyteller. His characters are rich and developed, moving with great maturity through the landscapes he lays out. And yet here is Crimson Peak, punctuated by inane voiceover and pinhole transitions that feel so…juvenile. A story plagued by too much exposition and not enough payoff. Your heroine can be uncommon and still have a typical Victorian engagement (heavily romanticized, a few days later you’re married, etc.) without all the Austen-esque ridiculous-ness. It also doesn’t need to be the first hour of the film. I wanted to scream during the waltz. It was honestly an infuriating experience to see Edith reduced to a romance victim and then spend the rest of the movie trying to regain herself.
Quick backtrack – Edith Cushing is the only daughter and heir to the Cushing architectural money. Thomas Sharpe and his sister Lucille arrive to woo her father’s money, but Thomas also woos Edith. Her father does not consent, and is promptly murdered. Edith travels back to Allerdale Hall with Thomas as his wife. Also, Edith can see ghosts. She sees a lot of them at Allerdale Hall, where a lot of things are not what they seem.
Look, it’s not a super complex mystery. The Sharpes need money, Edith’s father is murdered so she can marry Thomas, Lucille is insane and keeps making Edith drink tea. Edith sees a lot of lady ghosts and there are parts of the house she’s not allowed in. Granted, the second half is more enjoyable than the first, but it’s not a great story. If you read between the lines, you’ve solved everything in the first hour and the only mystery left is how the movie will resolve itself.
Aesthetically speaking, it’s still del Toro. Decadent visuals with a lot of gorgeous camera work. The Victorian era suits his style, and I really loved the costuming. Edith and Lucille (played excellently by Jessica Chastain) are polar opposites as a blonde and brunette respectively. We don’t see Lucille’s hair let down until the climax, while Edith slowly deteriorates into madness, so does her hair. Edith wears a lot of pastels and yellows and delicate floral elements, while Lucille wears rich jewel tones and sharp dress embellishments. Lucille also wears the same dress a lot, because her and Thomas are in dire financial straits. The end of the film features them both in white nightgowns, making their physical differences a lot more striking.
The sets are beautiful, with Allerdale Hall being grandiose and still dilapidated, leaking red clay from the walls and often literally ‘bleeding’ and ‘breathing’. It’s perhaps not as prominently featured as I would have liked, but there are some great moments that allow characterization of the house itself. The ghosts are creepy as hell, but used often as jump scares. I did like their mythos, especially for Edith’s mother. These ghosts are tortured, unfinished, and unable to help their creep factor. The audience is forced to come to terms with them at the same pace as Edith.
Don’t go into Crimson Peak expecting a straight horror though – it’s much closer to Pan’s Labyrinth than The Orphanage. There is tension, but I think because the story was underwhelming, so was the horror. Everyone acts really well though, like, seriously almost worth it. I’m a fan of Hiddleston, and he does a great job being doubting and aloof. Mia is fantastic as Edith, even considering the iffy plot, and Chastain brings it home in a totally unnerving Lucille.
It’s funny that I should review the first del Toro movie and the most recent in the same month, because I feel like Crimson Peak is really underdeveloped and feels at times so stylized that the movie tripped over itself. I did indulge in the specially made Crimson Peak Ale while at the Alamo Drafthouse, and it was very tasty. Would recommend, no matter what movie you’re watching.