DIR: Guillermo del Toro • WRI: Guillermo del Toro • Matthew Robbins • PRO: Guillermo del Toro, Callum Greene, Jon Jashni, Thomas Tull • DOP: Dan Laustsen • ED: Bernat Vilaplana • DES: Thomas E. Sanders • MUS: Fernando Velázquez • CAST: Charlie Hunnam, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston
Poor Guillermo del Toro, he really hasn’t been able to catch a break of late. If it’s not his long-gestating At the Mountains of Madness being forever passed on, or Hellboy 3 looking less and less likely each year, it’s his Justice League Dark script being the only property not currently in development at DC and Konami (obligatory #FucKonami to all you Jim Sterling fans out there) abruptly cancelling his very promising-looking Silent Hills. Even the all-but-guaranteed Pacific Rim 2 seems to have quietly died. So it’s nice to see a clear passion project like Crimson Peak make it to the big screen on a sizeable budget, with a great cast and a mature age rating.
Edith (Wasikowska) is an aspiring novelist and heir to a not insubstantial estate. She can also see ghosts. One day the effortlessly charming Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston) arrives for a meeting with her father and wastes no time in inducing some swooning. After a whirlwind romance and a violent tragedy, Edith and Thomas are wed and return to his native England to live in his family estate with his reserved and unsettling sister Lucille (Chastain). The estate in question is the textbook definition of beautiful decay; an impossibly large and decrepit country manor with a gargantuan hole in the roof and the clay mines below trying to reclaim it for the earth. Aside from an icy reception from Lucille, things seem to be going well for Edith until the ghosts start screaming at her in the middle of the night. As Edith grows mysteriously ill and the ghost encounters grow more intense, can Edith discover what the mystery that lies at the heart of the Sharpe estate is?
In the broadest terms, Crimson Peak could be pretty comfortably described as a more visually sumptuous but significantly less subtle Penny Dreadful (indeed, if it turns out that Eva Green was at some point in the running for Chastain’s role, it would be far from surprising). The directing, the cinematography, art direction, set and costume design etc. are all unassailable in their quality and in their success at creating and immersing you in the sweeping unreality of this heightened Gothic world. The performances too, mainly Hiddleston and Chastain, do an excellent job of grounding the story (on an emotional level) in a believable world. Wasikowska is her usual dependable self but doesn’t quite rise to the other two leads’ level. The supporting cast are more of a mixed bag, especially in the early scenes. A lot of the actors quite visibly struggle with the intentionally clunky, old fashioned dialogue but what really draws your attention to it is just how effortlessly Hiddleston engages with it. This leads to odd moments early on where there’s an obvious gap in acting quality between performers.
Make no mistake, the film is worth seeing for the overall world/visuals alone and that’s definitely for the best as everything else is disappointingly ordinary. First of all, ignore what the trailers may have told you; while there are some horror elements, this is a Gothic romance through and through. That’s not inherently a bad thing at all but it does make the few ghost encounters seem a tad incongruous, especially presented as they are within a very generically modern, jump-scare mould. Similarly, while there are some well staged, shocking moments in the overall story, the mystery itself and its particulars are very obvious (pretty much from the start) if you’re paying attention. The few, sudden injections of extreme violence and brutality do at least shake things up on that front. And make no mistake, this is proper violence. There’s one particular head-smashing which rivals Game of Thrones’ own infamous head-crush for shear excessive realism.
For all its self awareness of its own tropes (Edith being told her own ghostly tale ‘needs a love story’ by another character) and its very knowing engagement with them, the film is slightly disappointing on a story level. You could easily sit for hours just watching the camera swoop and glide around the genuinely jaw-dropping set for the house itself and there’s dozens of individual shots that would make a great coffee table book collection but ultimately it’s a film you can only fully enjoy while looking at rather than being swept up in.
15A (see IFCO for details)
Crimson Peak is released 16th October 2015