“Ghosts are real – this much I know…” There’s no doubt that this is Guillermo del Toro’s best film since his 2006 masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, but before you get too excited: Crimson Peak never succeeds at reaching the the same greatness and what we are essentially left with is a film that looks good on the surface, but has no real substance underneath the magnificent mise-en-scène. And even though it is clear that del Toro tries to pay his tribute to Victorian Gothic movies like Rebecca and The Innocents with the narrative that comes across as a mixture of Brontë sisters and Edgar Allan Poe, it never quite reaches the point of being as scary, mysterious and ghostly as it strives to be. Which is why, even though visually breathtaking and very well acted, the film ends up being soulless, frustratingly predictable and essentially very disappointing.
The rest of the review contains spoilers!
Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is a young and aspiring writer in 19th century Buffalo, New York. She comes across as a typical fairytale heroine who loses her mother at a very young age and is brought up by her caring and protective father who seems to have only one weakness – he obviously lacks some wisdom that seemingly only mothers possess: how to teach your daughter to be careful around charming and handsome strangers that appear out of nowhere and try to sweep them off their feet. Still, considering that Edith is a highly educated woman who spends her every waking hour writing a novel and who looks up to women such as Jane Austen and Mary Shelley, it doesn’t seem very plausible when she immediately and unconditionally falls in love with a mysterious and somewhat shady Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). And after her father dies in mysterious circumstances she also does not seem to take a lot of time to grieve (let alone doubt at the fact that his brutal death was an accident) – she immediately cuts all ties with her New York friends and (what is perhaps even more perplexing) almost instantly forgets about her career as a writer. Because even though she comes across as an independent woman who more than anything else values knowledge, books and possibility of freely expressing one’s thoughts, literary creativity and imagination, she willingly throws all of this away the minute a man she finds intriguing shows some interest in her. And we are once again left with a story where the main message seems to be that what any woman secretly wants, no matter how independent and free spirited she otherwise seems to be, is a husband. After she marries Thomas, they quickly move to his secluded home in England, called Crimson Peak (a mansion that will often spark some associations with Kubrick’s The Shining and with Hitchcock’s Manderley in Rebecca) – a home that he shares with his chillingly cold and hateful sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain).
It’s not long before Edith starts to suspect that things are not as they seem: the house is haunted, the siblings weirdly codependent (this part may be one of the most transparent ones for the viewer; we are living in an age of Game of Thrones after all; and as if del Toro wanted to acknowledge this fact, the scene where Edith finds out about the brother-sister incest is almost the same as the scene when Bran gets pushed off the window after he accidentally sees the royal twins making love) and Edith soon starts to feel suffocated by the dark and resentful presence of Lucille, as well as with her husband’s distance and weird disappearances in the middle of the night. A few encounters with bloody, ghostly creatures also don’t help with her settling in the new environment. Nevertheless, it soon gets clear that no matter how many dead creatures are present in the house, it’s the living that she should be afraid of.
Another story-twist that felt all too predictable was what Thomas and Lucille’s intention with Edith turned out to be. Of course they were after the money – and after that revelation it also came as no surprise that she was not their first victim. The only thing in this storyline that worked as it should was the fact that instead of a crazy wife locked in a tower, there was a crazy sister roaming through the creaking halls of the haunted house, trying to make Edith drink her poisonous tea and playing piano under the watchful eye of a horrifying, Dorian Grey-like portrait of their dead mother.
Mia Wasikowska, who with her pale face and long blonde hair managed to embody a smart, but also childlike innocent and naive romantic soul, couldn’t be a better choice to play Edith and Tom Hiddleston was absolutely spectacular as the aristocratic Thomas Sharpe – he seems to shine best in the roles of somewhat troubled men who are battling their inner demons, trying to hide their dark secrets. It therefore came as no surprise that he managed to make this character as human and graceful as possible – no matter how terrible the person that was hidden under the mask of this elegant, aristocratic Englishman was supposed to be. And while Chastain definitely surprised as an incestuous and murderous Lucille, it became clear as the film progressed that she doesn’t possess quite enough wickedness and viciousness that was needed for such a character. As someone who was supposed to embody a mixture of Black Widow and Snow White’s Evil Queen, Chastain didn’t seem to be completely up to the task and I think an actress such as Eva Green would manage to make Lucille a lot more terrifying and the ending knife battle a lot more memorable.
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Written by: Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnman
Running Time: 119 minutes