Written by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins / Directed by Guillermo del Toro / Starring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain
Edith Cushing: Ghosts are real; this much I know.
Subtle is not a word I would use to describe Guillermo del Toro’s directorial style. Imaginative, sure, but his imagination is boundless and the screen can often barely contain his immense vision. Never has this been truer than in his latest film, the gothic nightmare, CRIMSON PEAK. Once again though, del Toro spends too much time focusing on style and not enough on substance.
Del Toro is explicit in his intentions from the very start. Mia Wasikowska, an actress with a face that screams peril without even trying, plays Edith Cushing, an author who is trying to get her first novel published. A potential editor categorizes it as a ghost story, but she corrects him to say that it is more of a general story that just happens to have ghosts in it. She even goes so far as to tell us that the ghosts are symbolic of the past, as if that wasn’t plainly obvious already. And the same can be said about CRIMSON PEAK, itself a story that just happens to have ghosts in it. Del Toro may think he’s being crafty here but he is mostly just taking the scares out of the haunted tale he is trying to tell. Knowing that the ghosts we see, as creepy as they are, are nothing more than symbolic nuisances makes them pretty easy to disregard.
CRIMSON PEAK is divided up into two distinct acts. The first takes place in America of yore. Edith falls for a strange visitor from Europe (Tom Hiddleston), who has come in search of money to fund some sort of clay extraction contraption he’s built back home. He is travelling with his equally bizarre sister (Jessica Chastain, who is mostly reduced to leering intensely when on screen) and the twosome come across as so clearly off kilter that it is no surprise to anyone when it is confirmed that they are in fact very odd. Edith falls for the foreigner, despite having a perfectly suitable doctor suitor at home (played by Charlie Hunnam), and follows him and his sister home to Europe. Edith comes off in this first half as some sort of Jane Austen hybrid character, bold and ambitious yet weary of love and frivolity, who eventually chooses love all the same. The entire act is near farcical, which I doubt very highly is what del Toro intended.
Once at Allerdale Hall, her new home, Edith begins to see more and more ghosts. She heeds their groans and taunts and takes them as advice that there is something much more serious to fear in this hell house than its eerie, dilapidated decor. As she unravels the mystery, all we can really do is wait for it to happen. We knew the entire time that nothing was what it seemed because they told us upfront, so by the time we learn what is really going on, it isn’t the least bit surprising or satisfying. Still, CRIMSON PEAK is lush and luxurious in its production design, so there is much to feast your eyes upon, perhaps too much even. It just doesn’t get under your skin whatsoever despite how much it obviously wants to.