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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Review: Crimson Peak

This may sound impossible, but Crimson Peak was nothing like what I expected, and yet exactly what I expected. All the promotional material would have you believe it's a Gothic Horror, a misconception so great that Guillermo del Toro felt compelled to take to Twitter and insist that it was a Gothic Romance.
This difference became clear to me within the first twenty minutes of the film, which spends more time on the budding courtship between Edith Cushing and Thomas Sharpe than it does any of the nightly spectres. As such, I was left with my paradoxical statement: that Crimson Peak wasn't what I initially expected, but once the ball started rolling I knew exactly how it would unfold.
SPOILERS

The film's strongest point is its Gothic aesthetic: from the grand and dilapidated Allerdale Hall, to the elaborate and heavy costumes, to the practical special-effects used for the myriad of ghosts that appear throughout the film. Witnessing a mansion whose ceiling has rotted away to enable a constant fall of autumn leaves onto the tiled floor below should not have left me thinking: "dream home!" but everything in this film is so gloriously Gothic that I just wanted to roll around in it forever.
I've only said it a million times before in my Penny Dreadful reviews, but Gothic literature is all about atmosphere over plot – but in many ways that atmosphere is the plot. A heroine in an isolated house, unquiet spirits, the madwoman in the attic, horror inextricably tied up with obsessive love, a dark family history ... these are the well-trod tropes of the genre, ones which set the scene at the same time they determine the course of the story.
And the script for Crimson Peak doesn't even try to be subtle about how meta it is. When Edith gives her manuscript to a potential publisher she tells him: "It's not a ghost story, it's a story with ghosts in it. They're a metaphor for the past." Okay, got it del Toro. Later she pulls a book of Sherlock Holmes out of Doctor Alan McMichael's bookshelf and pointedly comments on it. Guess what role he plays in the film?
By the time Edith compares herself to Mary Shelley and says: "I'd rather die a widow," it's practically a spoiler. It could all do with a little more subtlety, but then that's not what this movie is about – del Toro wants to hit these tropes hard.
As such the film comes across as a homage to the Gothic as much as Gothic in its own right. No wonder the promotional material was so confused.
***
The cast is a small one, and it's the triumvirate of Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain who carry the story between them, crafting a three-way relationship that makes up the emotional crux of the film.
We should all thank God that Benedict Cumberbatch turned this project down. That said, Tom Hiddleston may prove to be a surprise to the fans who buy tickets for his sake. Thomas Sharpe initially appears as a dashing Byronic hero, but it turns out he's the pawn of his sister, who has almost certainly been sexually abused by her, and in hindsight clearly takes the role of the quintessential Femme Fatale (only, you know, male).
Mia Wasikowska is fine – though hardly a standout – as Edith, going from golden warmth to white fragility in costumes that track her character arc, complete with nightgowns featuring massive puffy sleeves that were possibly the closest thing the costume designer could get to butterfly wings (one of the film's many recurring motives).
But it's Jessica Chastain who steals the show as Lucille. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about her performance is that she deliberately makes no attempt to hide the fact she's the villain. The first time you see her you're in no doubt that this is one seriously messed-up woman, to such a degree that she becomes the Elephant in the Room. It's not even the social mores of the time that silence everyone; it's the fact that her twistedness is so obvious that no one (least of all Edith) knows how to respond to it.
***
Del Toro loves his colour schemes, which I remember him talking about at length regarding Pacific Rim. In this case, it's the ghosts that are portrayed as either red, black or white, with meaning attached to each one. But what meaning? 
Obviously the two red ones are those murdered at Crimson Peak, both terribly frightening but actually helpful in pointing Edith toward clues and trying to warn her away. That goes ditto for the black ghost of Edith's mother, warning her to: "Beware of Crimson Peak" when she's just a child. (Sadly the warning is meaningless, as Edith doesn't learn Allerdale Hall is nicknamed Crimson Peak until it's far too late. Seriously mum, you couldn't have been a bit more specific?)
Thomas and Lucille are the last ghosts: he's white, she's black. I really can't decide why Lucille would get the same colour treatment as Edith's benevolent mother (perhaps they're meant to be bookends, marked out as the first and last ghost that the audience sees?) but I assume Thomas appears as white to denote his redemption/purity.
At least that was my take. Any other thoughts?
As with Pacific Rim, a part of me admires this detail and subsequent opportunity for speculation, though another wishes that del Toro had put just a little more effort into his script as he did his visual flair. I was expecting something more from the plot: a worthy twist, a shocking surprise, an unexpected subversion. What, I don't know exactly. Though del Toro allows Edith to save herself from Lucille's rampage and thus break away from the wilting heroines of yore, there are still no real shocks to be found at Crimson Peak – at least not to the audience. 
***
There were a couple of dangling plot-threads that I'll generously call red herrings (Edith has a dream about one of the ghosts on a nearby hill that means nothing, the baby drama is raised only to be dropped instantly, and the servants – who could have been a valuable source of information, à la The Others – disappear without explanation) but for the most part Crimson Peak delivers as the Gothic Romance (not Horror) that del Toro promised.
It excels in its set design and costuming, though I expect that the more you know about Gothic literature the more nods and tributes you'll find throughout its length. Which reminds me, I really need to track down Rebecca. And The Fall of the House of Usher. And The Turn of the Screw...
***
I feel I've only scratched the surface of the film in this review, so here a few good articles that delve a little deeper:
Crimson Peak Erects and Subverts the Gothic Family Tree (focuses on the film's relationship with the Gothic genre)
Ghosts Are Movies: A Love Letter to Crimson Peak (a look at how this film fits into the rest of del Toro's portfolio)
Eight Gothic Literary Inspirations for Crimson Peak (exactly what it says on the cover)
Crimson Peak: Love and Monsters (a reading of the abusive subtext between Thomas and Lucille)
Crimson Peak (a straightforward but more critical review that raises some good points)

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