Crimson Peak would have been a wonderful silent film. It makes me think of the 2013 film Blancanieves directed by Pablo Berger and how it took the silent film model and updated it, providing the audience ample footage of visually stunning shots as the story was told in images rather than typical dialogue. Crimson Peak would have been better had there been no talking, no clunky dialogue or half-baked revelations because without a shadow of a doubt, the script is the worst part of the film and its most damning aspect.
A true gothic romance despite being marketed as a horror film, Guillermo Del Toro’s latest bases itself on Edith (Mia Wasikowska) a bookish young woman who wants to write ghost stories, despite publishers willing her to write romance since they believe no reader would want to read a horror story by a woman. She catches the eye of Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) a penniless and mysterious businessman who, along with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) live in an expansive and isolated mansion that’s slowly sinking into it’s clay tinged foundation. Thomas charms Edith and the two are soon married and off to Crimson Peak where ghosts are real and calling out desperately to be heard. Cleary, Thomas and Lucille are not who they appear to be and it’s not long until Edith is spending her nights lurking down never ending corridors, trying to discover the secret of the old rickety house and it’s long standing inhabitants.
While I’ve enjoyed Wasikowska in the past and believe that she very easily fits into this type of ghost story, she was unfortunately flat, although the film did very little to give her more while all the real meaty acting bit went to the brother and sister pair of Hiddleston and Chastain. Hiddleston is naturally charming and he puts off an air of suave danger and is framed as if he’s stepping out of a Harlequin novel for half of the film, all loosened sleeves and black curls while Chastain may be the only cast member to understand the the campiness needed for this type of film without ever letting the campiness become straight out bad. Chastain thrives when she’s allowed to cut loose a little (as seen in last years Miss Julie by Liv Ullman) and she grows increasingly fun to watch the more we see Lucille grow unhinged.
The stars of the film however aren’t the key to its biggest success which is everyone in the visual department, all of whom do excellent work creating a world and atmosphere so macabre and ominous, filled with moments of sensory delight that it’s easy to want to forgive a film that’s overflowing with shortcomings. The mansion is a living, breathing work of art, one that howls with wind as if it’s breathing, with an elevator shaft that shudders as if it’s groaning. With a hole placed in the center of its ceiling there’s constantly bits of things naturally falling through whether it be leaves, raindrops or crisp, white and red tinged snow. With Kate Hawley at the head of costuming, the characters dress to represent their roles in the film, whether it’s Edith’s yellows and blacks to match the fallen and helpless butterflies that Lucille watches being picked apart at the start of Edith and Thomas’s courtship, or Lucille in her black gowns, a black moth feeding those around her. It’s some of the finest costuming I’ve seen this year, intricate and detailed to the personalities with gowns that swallow the actresses whole.
The practical effects of the settings and costumes are matched with the cinematography by Dan Laustsen who creates lush and vivid imagery out of the countryside, and coupled with the score by Fernando Velazquez, the film feels derivative of the era, creating a sense of foreboding. A waltz between Thomas and Edith at the start of the film in particular comes to mind with direction by Del Toro that gives us the sweeping sensation that Edith herself must be feeling, the blissful calm before the storm.
This is why I wish words hadn’t been a necessity because at the film’s most hollow core, it’s a beautiful film to look at but the script penned by Del Toro and Matthew Robbins is a structural mess where any character motive is nonsensical or obvious. Del Toro wears his love of Gothic romance and Hammer horror films on his sleeve but the film never takes the time to explore its characters, leaving the film resting on archetypes. All of the heavy lifting is then forced onto the natural and alluring screen presences of it’s leads. Lines that were meant to be taken seriously caused laughter, and moments of urgency or fear were undercut with mistaken silliness. It’s a film that on its surface level is marvelous, and shallow once you’ve moved past the vibrancy and snow caked landscape.