Del Toro’s ‘Crimson Peak’ Is A Scenic, Gothic Mess

With Crimson Peak, Guillermo del Toro delivers a film that can certainly be characterized as a stirring gothic romance, but doesn’t accomplish much else. The one thing that it truly got right was the costume and set design. The attention to detail is astounding: from the cracks in the walls to the paintings to the puffy-sleeved nightgowns. In fact, if someone is interested in the Victorian era, this film may be worth watching just for its design, especially through the first half of the film, set in 1901 in Buffalo, NY. There is dedication not only to the accuracy of the set but also in the manner in which the society is presented.

Still, characteristic of del Toro, what we have here is a sensory overload. From the exaggerated vibrant colors to the constant creaks and moans of the machine and the castle, the audience is constantly entrenched. Whenever the film seems to drift a bit, starting to lose the audience’s attention, they are subjected to unnecessarily violent scenes that jolt some life, ironically enough, back into the film. As we move into the second half of the film, set at Crimson Peak castle, the story and the film become darker. The red clay mines below the estate, from which it earned its name, stain everything, from the snow to the walls and red clay distractingly oozes from every crack. It is really perfect for this film, which is filled with unsubtle symbolism.

As far as story is concerned, it is nothing new. It is a typical tale about a naive, bookish American heiress, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), who falls in love with Thomas Sharp (Tom Hiddleston) a British baronet with a dark secret. We even have a cruel sister-in-law Lucile Sharpe (Jessica Chastain) and a plucky hero in the form of the young doctor Alan McMicheal (Charlie Hunnam) who is in love with our heroine and trying to save her.  From suspicious glances to warnings delivered by ghosts, the conclusion of the film becomes obvious quite early on. Structurally and stylistically the film sticks to its gothic roots: from the glaring symbolism, to the constant foreshadowing, to the tragic love story. We have a strong female lead who becomes a damsel-in-distress who slowly regains her intellect and strength as we approach the end of the story.

 

Still, the actors do quite well with what they are given. While Chastain is not quite convincing, especially in regards to her accent, Hiddleston is much more sympathetic. His struggle between the two women is evident. He just seems like a lost, damaged, child who is trying to find some semblance of freedom or peace. For her part, Mia Wasikowska characteristically delivers a unique presence on screen. She manages to portray Edith’s strength as well as her vulnerability quite well.  

As our heroine says early on, this is not a ghost story, but rather a story with ghosts in it. Unfortunately, in this case it may have been better to simply forgo the ghosts entirely. The ghosts really were the most ridiculous aspect of the film. There was evident effort to create something that was realistic and fit with the detailed design of the film. In fact, del Toro actually had the Crimson Peak castle physically built in order to have it seem real as well as to properly dominate the scene the way it was meant to. Still, while that may have been steeped in reality, the ghosts are so starkly CGI they are almost comic, which obviously takes away from del Torro’s intended horror. It’s hard to have a sense of fear or horror when the monsters are cartoons.

Featured Image by Universal Pictures