Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film, Crimson Peak, starring Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston, is a masterful Gothic romance that displays all the classic staples of the genre, and, as expected with a Del Toro film, features dazzling visuals. Del Toro tends to balance his art-house Spanish films (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone) with blockbuster Hollywood films (Hellboy, Pacific Rim), though Crimson Peak looks to be a perfect balance between the two.
A vulnerable young female protagonist. A dark and brooding male love interest. A large old house with a mysterious history. The blurred lines between the psychological and supernatural. The slow unraveling of characters’ secrets. These are the ingredients that go into the genre of a Gothic romance, and Del Toro is clearly well-educated in this field. His entry into the canon sees Edith Cushing (Wasikowska), aspiring American novelist, marry the foreigner Sir Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston), an enigmatic inventor, in the aftermath of a family tragedy. He whisks her away to his family home in Cumbria to live with him and his sister, Lady Lucille Sharpe (Chastain). Though Edith soon discovers that the house has a life of its own; it is full of ghosts and she is the only one who seems to notice them.
“This is one of Del Toro’s best films to date, and perhaps his greatest effort in the English language yet”
Put simply, Allerdale Hall, the old mansion in which the Sharpe family resides, is one of the most spectacular sets ever created for the big screen. Del Toro has always been a visionary director but with the house’s narrow, winding corridors, its decadent furniture and its remarkably intricate decoration, he has outdone himself. The two main settings in the film embody contrary ideas: Buffalo, New York is a city teeming with technological innovation, while Allerdale Hall is a dilapidated manor riddled with decay, burdened by its past. Edith is a young woman caught between the past and the future. In interviews Del Toro has stressed the importance of colour symbolism in the film, and it is nowhere more obvious than in the red clay mound upon which the mansion is built, seeping through the floor and walls. No matter how hard the characters try to suppress it, violence cannot be kept hidden forever.
This film is by no means a conventional horror movie; perhaps is it even a movie suited to those who loathe modern horrors, for the frequently used ‘shock tactics’ are absent. Del Toro focuses entirely on atmosphere. His attention to detail is astonishing; not only in the world he has envisioned, but the way he has filmed it and the manner in which he gauges suspense out of simple but effective camera movements. A good comparison would be Kubrick’s The Shining, another film directed by a master of the craft. Both are set in vast, isolated settings with a history of violent crime, and are driven by the gradual unraveling of the character’s psyches, while a third party (in The Shining played by Scatman Crothers, here by Charlie Hunman) discovers the violent truths and sets about preventing an impending tragedy.
At Crimson Peak’s core are 3 terrific performances. Wasikowska is perfect as Edith Cushing, for she is an actress who excels at playing physically and psychologically trapped people, and her recent experience playing Jane Eyre was undoubtedly on the minds of casting directors. Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Sharpe is expertly layered, for behind his charming and ambitious exterior as an inventor there are darker secrets, particularly in his relationship with Jessica Chastain’s Lucille. Ultimately, Chastain is the star of the show. Her Lucille is wonderfully complex, and we see shades to the actress’ capabilities that haven’t been seen before. She is able to convey menace and vulnerability simultaneously, and her protective love for her brother manifests into intense envy and obsession.
The bond between Lucille and Thomas is beautifully played by Hiddleston and Chastain. As the film descends into a bloody, twisted finale, their actions become more and more unforgivable, yet they appear more and more childish. Del Toro explores the extremes love can take us to, whether between brother and sister, mother and child, or husband and wife. While he may not add anything new to the genre, he displays a perfect understanding of it. This is certainly one of his best films to date, and is perhaps his greatest effort in the English language yet.