Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Film Review: Crimson Peak (2015)

© Universal Pictures International  |  Source: A Tale of Two Dans

USA; 119 min.; drama, romance, mystery, horror, gothic
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writing: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins
Cinematography: Dan Laustsen
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope

“Love makes monsters of us all.” – Lady Lucille Sharpe 

In an interview with The Guardian, director Guillermo del Toro stated that it wasn’t his intention to “reinvent” the gothic romance. He rather planned on bringing modern audiences closer to those stories abundant with supernatural occurrences, repressed eroticism and/or shocking psychological revelations. His Crimson Peak is indeed a very much by-the-book effort, presenting everything I’ve come to expect from the genre. And while Del Toro provides us with intriguing images and a thrilling final act, he mostly fails to establish strong lead characters and truly frightening sensations.

Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) falls head-over-heels for young Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). After a rushed marriage, the handsome baronet moves his new wife to live in his run-down family estate somewhere in the middle of nowhere. But Edith does not feel quite at home. For one, there’s Thomas’s controlling and grim sister Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain), and then Edith is also haunted by a bunch of ghostly creatures who warn her of her new, apparently murderous, accommodation.

The Sharpe mansion is indeed the star of Del Toro’s film. Gloomy hallways, strange noises, old-fashioned furniture, a 19th-century elevator, dying flies on cupboards and moths flying out of every dark corner, blood-red clay seeping through the floorboards like the earth is ready to swallow the place whole – this house stands out as an ominous character on its own. The set design, in addition to the lush costumes and moody lighting choices, creates an atmosphere of spine-chilling opulence and a sense of unhealthy nostalgia, of lingering in a past that is rooted in rotten deeds.

I immediately get this The Fall of the House of Usher (1960) vibe. There’s a fair bit of Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) in there as well, and an abandoned wheelchair alludes to some Jane Eyre-ish madness in the attic. The film opens up another Poe-esque dimension with its abrupt outbursts of relentless, graphic violence. For me personally, these moments harbour much more shock than any of the ghost appearances throughout the film. Mostly computer-generated, these abstract and out-of-this-world looking beings never quite manifest themselves as a tangible threat to my peace of mind, and, most often, they pop up and vanish in a rather predictable fashion. While this particular look and the tame, old-school scare tactics probably were exactly what the Mexican director aimed to achieve, I had a difficult time being spooked by these swirling CGI spectres.

What also puts a damper on my overall enjoyment of the film is that most of the main characters suffer from a lack of depth and intrigue. Edith, especially. She starts off as an independent spirit (no pun intended) and shrivels into a meek, helpless creature whose sole purpose seems to be to uncover the manor mystery for us. I find this unfortunate since Mia Wasikowska is one of those actresses with beautiful understatement and emotional strength, and a bit more substance for her to work with would have been nice. Same goes for Tom Hiddleston. He succeeds in portraying the charming, tall and handsome stranger, but has to present a rather unconvincing development of his character towards the end of the film. Charlie Hunnam, as Edith’s secret admirer Dr. Alan McMichael, is the knight in shining armour, and that’s all there is to him.

It is Jessica Chastain as Lady Lucille who really steals the show. When the narrative focus shifts to her character in the final act, the film picks up pace and reaches a dynamic, captivating conclusion, in which even Edith’s self-esteem is ready to return. Chastain’s portrayal is calm and repressed, yet freaked and discomforting. She makes the most of a plot twist that I saw coming from miles away, and is ready to be fully wrapped up in lunacy. Fortunately, she doesn’t feel the need to resort to exaggerated fits of laughter or gaping eyes. Lucille’s craziness is dry, wonderfully wicked and even self-empowering.

Del Toro’s homage to gothic horror succeeds in evoking immersive visuals and paying tribute to genre classics of old. Unfortunately, a bunch of not-too-interesting core characters and a mostly too conventional approach to the material can occasionally result in a rather tedious viewing experience. And while the ghosts fail to stir my blood, Crimson Peak shines most in its finale in which it’s the human characters that leap down their respective spiritual abysses. 


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