Tom Hiddleston in a Gothic horror film directed by Guillermo del Toro about a haunted house? Sounds like someone delved into my head and cherrypicked what they found to make the ideal film for me. But did Crimson Peak live up to my expectations?
Well, in truth…yes and no.
Edith (Mia Wasikowska) wants to be a writer, and having experience of the supernatural after a ghostly visit by her mother as a child, she naturally turns to the spectral when she begins writing. She’s keen to stress to a prospective publisher that her story is not a ghost story, rather it’s a story with a ghost in it, which is a neat summary of Crimson Peak itself. You could quite easily take the ghosts out of it completely and it would still work as a film. According to del Toro’s Twitter feed, the ghosts were actors in full make up who were simply augmented by CGI but I felt the CGI was a little wobbly – though I’ll happily take any excuse to see the fabulous Doug Jones in make up.
Guillermo del Toro makes visually arresting masterpieces. He’s the Titian, the John Martin, and the Hieronymous Bosch of cinema.
That said, his films work best when real, physical things are going on on screen. The set design is second-to-none, and the crumbling Gothic edifice of Allerdale Hall looms across the entire film like the dark presence you feel walking behind you late at night, but whenever you turn around you only glimpse it out of the corner of your eye. The costumes just add to the Gothic glory of the whole thing, and they’re truly sumptuous. But the ghosts? Hm. I’m not sold. I want creaking floors, flickering shadows, things disappearing only to reappear elsewhere, ghostly writing on walls – not the occasional appearance of a bloodied corpse crawling along a floor.
Well what’s it about?
Edith lives in Buffalo, New York and she meets Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his eccentric sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) when they arrive in America to drum up funds for their clay mines back in Cumberland. Thomas pursues and eventually marries Edith, and brings her home to Allerdale Hall. The moment he carries her across the threshold, the slightly thin plot is almost overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the set – Robert Wise could have only dreamed of something so theatrical back in 1963 when he made (to my mind, at least) the finest haunted house film, The Haunting.
Naturally married life does not go well, and Edith is soon seeing ghosts around the hall. She finds mysteries at every turn, and like the good stereotypical Gothic heroine that she is, begins investigating the dark past of the house. Exactly what makes the mad Lucille tick, will Thomas get his mining machine to work, and why is it so important that Edith drinks Lucille’s tea? Edith gets a little help in the form of Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) who suspects that something isn’t quite right and treks all the way from Buffalo to Cumberland to give her a hand.
The plot is a little predictable, and it’s pretty much Gothic-by-numbers.
Family secrets? Check. Lonely heroine with no family to turn to? Check. Stolen keys for forbidden spaces? Check. Crazy relatives? Check. Crumbling old house? Check. About the only thing Crimson Peak doesn’t have is a mad housekeeper, but Jessica Chastain does her best to channel Rebecca‘s Mrs Danvers through her portrayal of the creepy sister. As much as I love Hiddleston, and he plays the tragic hero to marvellous effect here, Chastain stole the film for me, in all her eye-twitching, pursed lips magnificence. Allerdale Hall becomes a character in its own right, though the house itself is not really the decaying and threatening space I expected it to be – it’s not ‘evil’ like Wise’s Hill House. Instead it’s a reflection of its inhabitants.
Only two things let the film down for me. First off is the marketing of the film as a ghost story – as I said at the start of this review, it’s not, it’s a story with ghosts in it. Bit of a letdown, given del Toro’s past work (such as exemplary The Devil’s Backbone). Second is the casting of Wasikowska – she seems stuck in the same role she played in Jane Eyre and it doesn’t really work here. She manages to develop some pluck by the end of the film, and she displays resourcefulness throughout, but I found her difficult to warm to. She’s just not a likeable character and Wasikowska seems dwarfed by the scale of the film. Her ability to see ghosts seems hit-and-miss, only appearing when it suits the plot and seemingly forgotten in between.
Is it worth seeing?
I would say yes, as it’s visually stunning, and Hiddleston puts in an excellent non-Loki turn as Sir Thomas, while Chastain is a revelation as Lucille. Even Hunnam is fantastic as the solid, dependable doctor. Del Toro knows how to make glorious films and he’s still my favourite director in terms of vision and use of cinematic conventions.
But ignore some of the hype of the trailers – if you’re expecting spooky chills or things that go bump in the night you might be a little disappointed, and this is far more a thundering Gothic echo of stories past, rather than a novel reworking of supernatural classics.