Guillermo Del Toro is known for his eerie gothic and frightening tales, and this is exactly what Crimson Peak is all about, a tale of ghosts and haunted mansions, of murders and love, of life and death, obsession and despair. And with great actors such as Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain in front of the camera, we would be right to expect a home run. How does it fare?
While, as I write those lines, the movie premiered only a few hours ago at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, I personally had the chance of seeing it in Paris, introduced by director Guillermo Del Toro, actress Mia Wasikowska, and actor Tom Hiddleston. After Hiddleston introduced the film as a” gothic romance” in an impressive french, Del Toro praised the aesthetics of the movie, as well as the fact that everything is handmade, that the ghosts are real actors and not digital creations. Surprisingly, he also praised the gender politics of the movie, just before saying goodbye and not leaving a chance for Wasikowska (who had a microphone in hand) to say a word. The irony was not lost, but I tried to ignore it as I jumped into the movie.
The tale is one of a young American woman named Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) in the late 19th century. A woman who dreams of publishing her ghost stories, and has no interest in love. That is until Sir Thomas Sharpe, a young British gentleman (Hiddleston) comes into her life. His intention is to gather funds from her father (the impressive Jim Beaver) in order to build a machine capable of mining the clay on the Sharpe’s estate. He came to America with his sister Lucille (Chastain) and will promptly seduce Edith. The rest of the movie I will try not to spoil, but ghosts of these people’s pasts will indeed appear and lay bare the dark secrets they try to hide.
If there is one thing to be said about Crimson Peak is that it is a gorgeous film. The aesthetics are perfect, and knowing Del Toro was very much interested in directing a movie based on Disney’s Haunted Mansion, you might find that he indeed did that movie, at least visually, but with the freedom to show death, gore, and lust. The sets, the costumes, the photography, every frame in this movie is a delight for the eyes. If you are as much of a lover as I am for Gothic sensibilities, you will probably love seeing it.
However, the story has too many shortcomings to be able to call this movie a masterpiece, or even a great one. For one thing, every revelation of this movie would have most likely been predicted by the viewer a good twenty minutes prior. And I am not known for my brilliance in deduction. Aside from that you might find that the ghosts, who you would expect to bear great importance in a ghost story, are actually absolutely pointless in moving the story forward, other than the occasional finger pointing to a clue. The impression that is left is the ghosts only serve as a very cheap device to give the most impressionable of the audience an occasional fright. And there is something to be said about a ghost movie that would probably be much better without any ghosts at all. At least the deductions of Wasikowska’s character would truly seem her own.
But frankly my experience may be worse than the one of most viewers as, before my screening, I had the director lie to my face. The ghosts, while indeed played by actual actors, absolutely feel like the average digital creation you would see in any movie, and are obviously digitally incorporated instead of an actual set presence by the actors. And the great talks of gender politics, of strong female characters and avoiding the trope of the “damsel in distress” were lies as well. Wasikowska’s character goes from being a decidedly proud celibate woman to falling in love with literally the second character who shows her interest. And she then sees her life saved by the well-timed appearance of a male hero. I should say, I would see no problem with those things in any other circumstances, but Del Toro’s introduction left me feeling cheated. Unfortunately, Chastain’s character bundles the clichés of her character-type as well, and have no nuance or dimension.
The acting overall was great with a special mention to Jim Beaver who easily steals every one of his scenes. Hiddleston was excellent and Wasikowska as well, however she’s starting to feel a little typecasted, I really hope to see her soon in something else than the average fragile innocent girl.
I really wanted to enjoy this movie. Pan’s Labyrinth left such a lasting impression by the quality and uniqueness of the story, the aesthetics and the acting, I was looking forward to find that feeling again. But viewers will have to look for it somewhere else, as Crimson Peak appeared to me as a stunning but ultimately empty movie. It is not unique and will most likely not leave a very lasting impression. Del Toro insisted it was not a horror film, but his willingness to include cheap fright scenes while neglecting to exploit the potential of his characters’ backstory tells me otherwise, and will most likely leave viewers disappointed. If you lower your expectations however, you might still be capable to enjoy the movie for its few redeeming qualities.
- The fabulous aesthetics
- Every scene with Jim Beaver or Burn Gorman
- Characters featuring every clichés in the book
- Pointless ghosts in a ghost story