“When the time comes, beware of Crimson Peak!”
Sage advice from her Mom, that Mia Wasikowska’s Edith Cushing would have been wise to follow. As she doesn’t, we’re treated to Guillermo del Toro’s latest creation “Crimson Peak.”
Edith, a would-be-writer, is shown to be independent in both mind and fortune, as she eschews balls and matrimony in favor of social reform and novel writing. All this is abandoned, however, with the introduction of baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and Thomas’ sister, creepy dominatrix Lucille (Jessica Chastain) into her life. Despite the misgivings of both her father (Jim Beaver) and her Ophthalmologist suitor Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam,) she is quickly married and packed away to Sharpe’s estate named “Allerdale Hall,” and learns only too late that the red clay in the earth gives the place its alternate nickname “Crimson Peak.”
The movie plays out much as anyone would suspect, who is a fan of the gothic/horror/noir genres–no dramatic “Sixth Sense” plot twists here. What one gets is more a sense of a long homage to the seminal works clearly loved by the filmmakers: Edith and Thomas’ whirlwind courtship and marriage is reminiscent of “Rebecca,” with their big romantic scene ripped almost verbatim out of “Jane Eyre.” Crimson Peak itself, in its dilapidated state mirrors “The Fall of the House of Usher,” sinking into a blood-red tarn, while cinematic callbacks to “Notorious” and “The Shining” make up much of the third act.
Where the movie falters a little is in trying to eat its cake, and have it too. del Toro clearly loves a strong female protagonist, and Edith is a good example of one…until she isn’t. Unfortunately, the cornerstone of most traditional gothic tales is a helpless (and hapless) heroine who endures a frightful situation largely because she has no other options–no friends or family, no money, and no progressive ideas that she can live independently. While we can understand the bright and stubborn Edith getting charmed into a hasty marriage, there really doesn’t seem to be a good reason why she would consent to stay in a house that is clearly uninhabitable. Unlike the usual shrinking violet gothic victim, she has a man who would marry her, a solicitor who can wire her all the money she needs, and a strong will of her own. She’s clearly been brought up wealthy–why on Earth would she allow herself to be put up in a house that doesn’t even have a roof over a large part of it? (For that matter, how is it that later, the snow is so dense you can barely see outside, yet we only see a handful of flakes floating down from the huge gaping hole in the roof inside? How can Thomas stomp on the floorboards when they first enter, causing red clay to exsanguinate up between them, when there is an entire floor beneath them?) Edith is too strong in the beginning for us to understand why she becomes so weak in the middle–staying in this house where both supernatural and natural elements are clearly threatening her, when she could easily leave.
But the main reason to see the film is for the gorgeous visuals. The costumes are lovely and ornate, and will no doubt be recognized for awards at some point. Wasikowska is constantly in white or yellow, and is lit so she almost glows amongst the darker palettes of the Sharpe siblings, like the omnipresent dead American butterflies being consumed by the British moths.
The House itself is the most successful character in the film, with del Toro reportedly having spent over half a year to build the three-story set practically. Ornate and designed to unsettle in every possible detail, it is a virtual living thing, that both captivates and captures everyone in it. By the end of the film, while motives are revealed and reversed, we get the sense that everything that has transpired–from the telling of the tale to the events therein–has all been in service to The House, which is ultimately as transfixing as a poniard through a butterfly.