REVIEW SUMMARY: Beautifully shot and with a standout performance by Jessica Chastain, Guilliermo Del Toro’s turn at gothic romance never comes together due to wooden performances by the leads, a sluggish screenplay, and overdesigned settings.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: After her father’s death, aspiring author Edith Cushing falls in love with and marries Sir Thomas Sharpe, traveling with him and his sister Lady Lucille Sharpe to England, where she discovers, amid ghosts and other entities, that he is not who he appears to be.
PROS: Beautiful images and color palate, especially in the evocation of scarlet clay bleeding through snow; strong performance from Jessica Chastain.
CONS: An all-too-familiar screenplay that never offers more than standard gothic fare, sluggish pacing and direction; wooden turns by Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hiddleston.
“It’s not a ghost story,” Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) tells a potential publisher as he reviews her manuscript at the beginning of Crimson Peak. “It’s a story with ghosts in it.” Edith speaks the line as a plea for the publisher not to dismiss her tale, but it serves as a heavy-handed guide for the movie’s audience, many of whom perhaps seek the kinds of chills Guilliermo Del Toro brought to such movies as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Crimson Peak showcases ghosts aplenty—Edith sees her first after her mother’s death, and they haunt Allerdale Hall, where she moves with her new husband Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain)—and their skeletal visages and groping bony hands pump one’s blood with Freon. But they appear in the form not of a ghost or horror story but a gothic romance along the lines of Brontë’s Wuthering Heights or Du Maurier’s Rebecca—a wise move for Del Toro, who understands the need to try different things, but whose macabre sensibilities this time ill-serve his material. He sets out to make the best gothic picture of the twenty-first century, but instead creates, like an LSD-infused Victor Frankenstein, a monster devoid of soul and lacking grand in its guignol.
Del Toro and co-screenwriter Matthew Robbins begin things promisingly enough. Edith meets Sir Thomas as he looks for backers for a mining machine and begins a courtship, much to the dismay of her father Carter (Jim Beaver), who has Sir Thomas and Lady Lucille investigated, and learns that they are penniless and, perhaps, out for the family’s money. Then her father is murdered (gruesomely, in a manner that puts astute viewers in mind of one of the more grisly murders in Dario Argento’s Deep Red), leaving Edith to be whisked away by the Sharpes to England and the family home, much to the chagrin of Edith’s other suitor Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), an ophthalmologist who suspects that the brother-and-sister pair possess sinister motives. Allerdale Hall, once Edith and the Sharpes arrive, shows itself to be a decrepit ruin where scarlet clay seeps through the floors and walls, runs in the pipes, and seeps through snow drifts. In very little time, Edith witnesses ghosts in the halls, revealing secrets kept by Thomas and Lucille.
The pleasures of gothic romances derive in part from the plight of the young heroine as her antagonists torment her. Fortunately, Jessica Chastain as Lady Lucille proves a formidable villain, driven by standing (the family hasn’t been able to rub two coins together in some time) and jealousy; what gothic would be complete without such things? Handled improperly, such a role invites the thespian to make feast of the ornate scenery (and oh, what glorious scenery), dipping the narrative into bathos. Chastain, however, displays her wintry demeanor with such skill and delivers her lines with such subtle venom that she steals every scene. Unfortunately, the love story between Edith and Thomas never convinces because its actors never find the right tone. Mia Wasikowska, who captivates in Jane Eyre, plods through each set piece with wide eyes and open mouth, her delivery of lines as foggy as the English mountains surrounding Allerdale Hall. Hiddleston jettisons the dynamism and charm he brings to roles as divers as Loki in Marvel’s The Avengers or the vampire Adam in Only Lovers Left Alive to play a stiff upper-class British twit, torn between Edith’s love and family duty. Charlie Hunnam’s Dr. McMichael looks on with doe eyes as Edith falls for Thomas and squares his jaw as he sets out to England to rescue her, but never generates much presence, often coming off as an even more cartoonish version of Chris Hemsworth.
As story, Crimson Peak ought to hit the right notes, but, like Allerdale Hall sinking into the scarlet clay beneath its foundation, finds itself mired in murk. The excesses of design, planting the tale firmly in the Victorian era, overbalance the routine details of the movie’s basic plot. Yes, Allerdale Hall houses rich chiaroscuro blends of color and shadow, offering a richness of setting one finds in Del Toro’s best work; it evokes both Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner and Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula in its attention to the minutiae of scene. Unfortunately, detail drowns much of the action (Del Toro and Robbins take a long time to get to England and the tale proper), causing the pace to slog through needless exposition and not terribly surprising surprises. (It doesn’t help that the movie takes itself far too seriously, and would have benefitted from the injection of levity, or even camp.) Of course the Sharpes are not as they appear, and the revelations, when they come, never transcend expectation. One expects such things in a gothic romance, but one wishes for material less obvious and more energetic. Crimson Peak thinks itself the return of this long-neglected genre, but is as lifeless as the ghosts that inhabit it, and as mechanical as the machine Sir Thomas tries to build.