Despite it's superbly assembled cast and Del Toro's decadent, jaw-dropping aesthetics, the story at the heart of this Gothic romance is, unfortunately, not quite up to scratch.
Director, Guillermo Del Toro has long affirmed that his latest film, Crimson Peak is not the horror that it’s trailer suggests it to be. And despite it’s many bone-crushing, blood-spilling, jump-scaring moments, it is true; the film is, at it’s core, a very-character-driven, melodramatic Gothic romance, in which the various ghostly visions are not at all what they seem to be.
The film follows Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) – an inquisitive and headstrong young writer, who is plagued by the memory of an apparition’s mysterious, yet blood-curdling warning, to be wary of the eponymous Crimson Peak. Unfortunately, Edith loses her wits and fails to take heed of this caution, when she is seduced by the mysterious but alluring charms of Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), and his icy sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain).
In terms of character and casting, Del Toro has more or less hit the nail on the head; enlisting three superbly talented actors in his lead roles. Wasikowska has made a name for herself, playing bright young innocents – from Alice (of Wonderland fame) to Jane Eyre – and here, she expands on that to great effect, providing a wonderful, light antithesis to Chastain’s far darker portrayal of the tightly-wound Lucille. Chastain is perhaps the dark horse of the entire film; evoking a quiet intensity that suddenly springs to life in the final sequence.
And then of course, in between these two remarkably strong female leads is Hiddleston, who brings just the right balance of charm and ferocity to his role – in a way that is arguably closer to the tone of the film than anything that Benedict Cumberbatch (the actor originally set to play Sharpe) might have produced. The shadowy chemistry between Hiddleston and Chastain as these peculiar siblings is also undoubtedly enticing.
Apart from the three central actors, the rest of the cast seems neither here nor there. Charlie Hunnam’s portrayal as Edith’s lovestruck childhood friend, Dr. Alan McMichaels, is mildly unimpressive, while Jim Beaver and Burn Gorman are but small, vaguely ineffective footnotes within the film’s supporting cast. And unfortunately, when it comes to plot and story, the film is just as underwhelming. Despite a relatively strong opening, the ultimate climax of the film is actually quite vapid – as the plot dissolves into a somewhat spoiled and unoriginal ending, which reduces it’s female characters to overtly hyperbolic hysterics. Though Del Toro is wonderful at visual surprises, when it comes to building suspense in the story itself, the plot seems to contain clues that are without much brevity or substance. Perhaps on second viewing, certain breadcrumbs will suddenly make more sense, but at first glimpse it’s not as clear.
However, no matter how perplexing the story, it cannot be denied that this is a beautifully crafted-film, aesthetically speaking. In true Del Toro style, every shot screams decadence, with an exquisite amount of detail woven into everything from the cinematography to the set design and the utterly gorgeous costuming. For this inimitable sense of grandiosity, Del Toro must be commended. Early in the film, Thomas remarks to Edith that he “always closes [his]eyes when things get uncomfortable,” to which Edith objects – and in a way, we as audience members are forced into opting for the same choice as our heroine. Though the jump-scares are plentiful and quite often, we are confronted with extremely visceral scenes of bloody violence, we cannot dare to look away – because the film is just so stunning in spite of this.
Ultimately, Crimson Peak seems to be a film that, despite the commendable efforts of Del Toro, has dissolved into that old cliché of ‘style over substance.’ It looks beautiful, and lord knows that the cast he has so perfectly assembled are beautiful, but the central story just loses grasp of it’s promising, original ambitions, dissolving into a lacklustre climax that fails to hit as hard as it could.
Crimson Peak (2015), directed by Guillermo Del Toro, is distributed in the UK by Universal Pictures, Certificate 15.