Guillermo del Toro’s period romance turned horror tale turned stage drama is an interesting but odd film, whose mixture of genres results in a story that feels barebones but nonetheless offers incredible visuals and atmosphere thanks to its stunning architecture and disturbingly convincing special effects. The writing could use more confidence along the lines of del Toro’s own Pacific Rim or the engrossing genre-blend Pan’s Labyrinth, but this is still a gorgeous movie that would simply benefit from more character depth and quicker pacing to back up its amazing set pieces.
Edith Cushing saw a ghost when she was ten. It was her mother’s, who gave her only a vague warning: Beware of Crimson Peak. Years passed, and Edith seemed happy and doing well for herself, her dress suggesting prestige and grandeur. She’d spent her time constructing a manuscript, using a ghost not as the center of a plot but as a metaphor for the past. Her publisher, not particularly progressive toward women or their narrative tastes, insisted on a love story.
One like this would give him more than he bargained for.
Edith (Mia Wasikowska, Tim Burton’s Alice) meets with obstacles trying to get her story approved, but her father’s clear endorsement of her effort makes for a touching detail. Meanwhile, Thomas Sharpe (the charming and well cast Tom Hiddleston) is trying to raise capital for an advanced harvester to mine clay with. Edith’s father thinks much less of Mr. Sharpe than she herself does, and Mr. Cushing dismisses Thomas’ efforts as those of a man who hasn’t actually worked hard or earned a success.
Thomas is determined to woo Edith–who seems like an interesting character with more on her mind than just a suitor–and to that end he asks her to dance at a fancy social gathering, complete with piano and a waltz. The movie eventually picks up and becomes more “relevant,” but even though these early scenes don’t always clearly show their importance in a larger plot, Guillermo del Toro’s artistic vision is as stunning as it always is. Regardless, the stuffy romance gives way to severe drama, and it finally blends well with the earlier horror elements once an important character is brutally murdered in a washroom with soft music playing in the background.
Wasikowska’s acting feels a bit stilted when the movie shifts to Edith as an adult but gets better throughout the film, with notable emphasis on one scene where she is forced to identify the body of the murder victim and then to attend his funeral. Her crying looks very convincing. Charlie Hunnam’s (the lead in the perennially exciting Pacific Rim) Dr. Alan McMichael is an earnest and interesting ophthalmologist, and a short scene and some lines of dialogue imply the ghastly visions throughout the film are more biological than merely supernatural.
In any case, Thomas and Edith quickly marry and subsequently move into his house, Allerdale Hall, itself falling into disrepair thanks in part to the mines below. The surrounding clay tends to make the water run red, making for a chilling psychological effect, and the monsters Edith sees are less “jump scares” than showcases of really, really good special effects, making them fascinating to behold. Even the woodworking toys Thomas made for his sister Lucille (the talented but arguably ill-suited Jessica Chastain) are wonders to witness, as is the immense house much of the story takes place in. On the subject of visuals that don’t improve the movie, the story’s portrayal of sexual themes feels wayward, from a quick detail about books hiding explicit content in plain sight that doesn’t really go anywhere, to an awkward sex scene where Edith gets maybe fifteen seconds of foreplay and still has her chemise on. Interested viewers do get to see Tom Hiddleston’s butt.
Chastain’s acting efforts feel rather hamstrung by the film’s writing, whose cold-hearted portrayal of her isn’t very creepy (minus one scene where she’s downright menacing) until she becomes irrational. As the story very slowly reveals its true nature, the film decides to be a mystery and becomes better as a result, giving a laboriously slow romantic drama a gory and surprisingly jaw-dropping third act with a solid plot twist. Edith’s status as an observant, intelligent, and hard-to-fool protagonist is particularly welcome and makes the pacing noticeably easier to swallow. The final scenes of the movie are a bit melodramatic and feel more suited for a stage production, but the story works well enough for a somewhat sentimental premise that gets warped almost beyond recognition.
Conclusion: A thin but ambitious effort from a talented director.
Crimson Peak’s lack of conviction denies it the humor and quick pacing of a Hellboy, the majestic yet grisly horror of Pan’s Labyrinth, or the let’s-get-’em earnestness of a Pacific Rim, but this story’s mix of settings and themes remains interesting even if the running time makes the movie feel undetailed. This still makes for a movie that, disregarding the gore but strangely sometimes because of it, is flat-out gorgeous even to look at, in the vein of From Up on Poppy Hill (my first thought when I initially saw the interior of Allerdale Hall) or Brokeback Mountain.
The characters aren’t very nuanced or complex, resulting in dialogue exchanges that sometimes feel less convincing than the imagery does, and the film’s grounded world-building feels mostly like an excuse for excellent special effects, even as some of the standard horror elements (doors opening on their own) feel too predictable to impress. Regardless, as a piece of moving art the film soars, and if its are-we-going-anywhere pacing doesn’t become an issue, it’s a worthy recommendation.