15th Oct2015

‘Crimson Peak’ Review

by Jack Kirby

Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver | Written and Directed by Guillermo del Toro

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In Crimson Peak, Mia Wasikowska plays Edith, a young American writer living in the late 1800s with her industrialist father (Jim Beaver). He is approached by Tom Hiddleston’s English gentleman Sir Thomas Sharpe to invest in a motorised clay extraction machine, designed to mine the mountain of blood red clay upon which the Sharpe family home resides. Sharpe’s weird sister, Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain) has travelled with him in their efforts to woo investors, but it’s Edith that ends up in thrall to Sir Thomas and, after a few spoilery plot happenings, they marry and return to the Sharpe country pile.

Did I mention that Edith can see ghosts? That’s important (or is it?). She has previously been haunted by her long dead mother and upon her arrival in England, her ghostly visitation tally considerably increases. Indeed, all manner of mysterious goings-on seem to be happening in the house and by golly if Edith isn’t going to get to the bottom of it.

Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, the world’s leading Mexican purveyor of visually arresting horrific fairy tales. Del Toro’s visual flair and the TLC he brings to his projects are evident in spades. Not only does Crimson Peak look terrific, it also has a handmade, ‘crafted’ feel to it too. Quite why the Sharpes need a machine to extract the clay isn’t clear – it oozes up through floorboards and out of walls like the house itself is bleeding. When it’s hauled out of the earth it looks like torn up lumps of flesh and when the snow settles, the clay seeps into it, looking for all the world as if rather a lot of violence has recently taken place on the manor’s grounds. The ghosts too, when they appear, bear evidence of particularly grisly fates. They appear as skeletons with flesh hanging and rotting from their half corporeal, half spectral forms. As you’d expect from a del Toro monster, they’re as creepy as shit. The ever present suggestion of human tissue is particularly prescient given the film’s preoccupation with the sins of the flesh.

To its credit, Crimson Peak evokes the gothic Victorian novels it takes inspiration from. I was reminded of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Mary Shelley (who gets a nod)’s Frankenstein in its melodrama and there’s a Dickensian aspect to its characterisation.

The film also has really good sound design. I know that’s a really lame thing to pick up on and perhaps the cinema the screening I was in contributed to this, but every scratch, gust, drip and creek of the house sounds eerie as all hell; if you closed your eyes, you’d feel as though you were right there too.

Del Toro’s cast do the director proud. Wasikowska, apparently a second choice for the role after Emma Stone, feels right for the role; she has a kind of period look about her. She also has agency and guile but shows us her fear and vulnerability (both physical and emotional) too. It’s role that could easily fall into either the clichéd Strong Female Lead or a powerless victim but Wasikowska strikes the balance very well, creating a likeable character with whom it is easy to empathise. I’ve never really understood what the fuss was about Tom Hiddleston and whilst he’s enjoyably unsettling in this, his swings from smooth and cool to impassioned impulsiveness (as well as lank greasy hair) remind a little too much of Loki. Chastain has perhaps the most challenging role and admirably resists the urge to go to batshit crazy with it. I also enjoyed Charlie Hunnam in his role as Slightly Useless Sexy Hero Doctor.

Although I liked an awful lot of what Crimson Peak had to offer, it’s not perfect and it’s biggest flaw is the predictability of the plot. There are some very familiar beats throughout; it reminds of lots of films generally though perhaps nothing quite in particular. The lush visuals only temporarily mask some leaps of logic that on reflection, cheapen the storytelling a little. It seems unlikely that Lucille would so blatantly carry around a key that might as well have ‘STEAL ME TO ADVANCE PLOT’ engraved on it and Edith’s discovery of clues hidden around the house feel like watching someone solve puzzles in a video game. The reason for the Sharpes’ mysterious activities is also a little hazy and perhaps underwhelming. Having said that, if you’re willing to buy into the house bleeding red clay, a swarm of butterflies living in the loft and the constantly falling leaves coming through the massive hole in the roof despite the fact that there aren’t any trees to be seen – and you do completely go with these things – you can probably excuse it bit of fudging around some plot aspects.

Despite this, I thoroughly enjoyed the film and was pretty gripped throughout. At points, it’s very creepy and there are at least two moments of violence that both sicken and enthral. It’s not del Toro’s best but is stylish enough and made with enough love that it will no doubt find its audience and earn a place in their hearts.

Crimson Peak is released across the UK from tomorrow, October 15th.

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