Crimson Peak Feature

Crimson Peak Review: Haunted by Conscience

Monday, October 19, 2015 Rob Samuelson

Crimson Peak

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam
Rating: Four stars out of five
Available in theaters now

When Mia Wasikowska's Edith Cushing says at the very beginning of Crimson Peak that ghosts are real and she is familiar with them, she's not kidding. And neither is director Guillermo del Toro. Ghosts are as much part of the movie as the ornately decorated walls and busted ceiling, the seeping floors and peeling paint, the puffy sleeves and the trailing skirts of this English manor at the turn of the 20th century.

These ghosts are a matter of fact within the context of Crimson Peak. There is no fussing about their existence and relationship with Edith, a young American writer who falls in love with a traveling English baronet (Tom Hiddleston) in search of capital for his family's clay mining and brick making (hence the blood-red goo that give the film its title) business. Del Toro has no time to play the “are they real or a figment of her imagination” game. He gets right into it and doesn't look back, although one slight thing he may have done differently is to more fully render the ghosts visually – some are fairly bland blobs while the later ones have that staticky and echoey silent film superimposition to them that really pops. But generally, there is a form of control del Toro exerts in so many aspects of the movie, from the classical iris shots opening and closing on the things he really wants the audience to focus on to the slow and confident dolly push-ins on the doors and hallways of the estate at the center of the story.

Of course, as Edith explains about the ghost story she herself is trying to sell at the film's start, the specters in Crimson Peak serve as metaphors, in this case specifically, “for the past.” It is another bold, clear indication from del Toro to the audience of the story's intent, and it is also an acknowledgment that this story will be smaller than one might expect heading into it.

That is because everything about this film is related to the three people at its center, Edith and the Sharpes, her new husband Thomas and sister-in-law Lucille. It starts and ends with them. Thomas and Lucille truly are 30-somethings and not ageless head hunters for the underworld. The ghosts are not part of an ancient sacrifice ritual or out for some sort of mayhem or revenge. And they are relatively fresh -- they lived within Edith's, Thomas's, and Lucille's lifetimes and each ghost is intimately familiar with one or more of the three. The dead serve as reminders of these characters' past, much of it recent. They are the guilt that comes from doing things a person should not do, warnings about the types of people to avoid, and cruel visual memories of misery in childhood, depending on which character is involved.

They are also manifestations of conscience, that nagging feeling Edith gets about how something is not right with her new family. She lets herself get swept up in the attentions of her handsome striver of a husband, perhaps allowing the lust of a new relationship take her places her otherwise headstrong ways would not usually allow. The ghosts that appear to her, to warn her about the poor decisions she is making, are frightening because facing harsh truths is frightening. We want to bury our heads in the sand and avoid the coldness of imperfection. Much to her personal wellbeing, Edith does just that to keep her fantasy marriage going.

And so Edith sacrifices what makes such a strong character early in the film, her drive to succeed and her writerly aspirations. She is, at the start, a wannabe Mary Shelley, but there is a lot more Jo March in her than anything. The Little Women protagonist is strong-willed and unable to do anything that is not her way. It is when Edith does give away pieces of herself for this dashing, charming Englishman that she begins to lose what makes her special, what makes her herself. It would be like if Jo had accepted the worst-case-scenario Laurie's marriage proposal – a refusal to believe in herself would only result in ugliness, unhappiness, and in Crimson Peak's case, death.

None of this is a fault of the film, as Edith's arc is about realizing her break from herself and taking back control of her own life. One key scene between Edith and Lucille involving an excruciating sound effect of a spoon scraping against a bowl of soup represents a straw-that-broke-the-camel's-back moment in immersive detail.

And yet, in placing so much of the dramatic heft on the shoulder of an easily likable heroine, del Toro might shortchange the richest relationship of the film, the one between Thomas and Lucille. Del Toro draws such sharp contrasts between the eager-to-please Thomas and his salty, dismissive, and protective older sister that it's a bit of a shame he didn't make a longer movie to dive into them. Instead, their upbringing – horrifying solitariness that led to a fiercely loyal pairing, based on Lucille's telling – gets doled out in small samples. They are hints meant to engage the wheel-spinning parts of every viewer's brain because the unknown is always more frightening than the known. However, the things del Toro makes known about the Sharpes are so juicy, and the ways Hiddleston and Chastain bounce off each other are so full of energy that it might be worth the gamble of losing some of the mysterious scare factor in order to fully explore the knotted disaster that is their trauma-borne codependency.

But wishing for more time in a world with fascinating characters is not the strongest of criticisms. It is more likely a compliment to a film crafted by a masterful director.

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