Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain generally make good choices when it comes to accepting movie roles. Here, Wasikowska plays Edith, an aspiring author living with her highly regarded builder father in Buffalo, New York, at the dawn of the 20th century.
She has grown up haunted (literally) by the loss of her mother. Cursed with the power to communicate with the souls of the dead, Edith receives a mysterious warning from beyond the grave: “Beware of Crimson Peak”, with no further explanation. An outsider in high society thanks to her willful imagination, she finds herself torn between rival suitors. There is her childhood companion, Dr Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), a brilliant intellect who stimulates her mind; and the irresistibly seductive British outsider Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who quickly steals her heart.
When Edith’s father dies in mysterious circumstances, Sharpe sweeps her away to his luxurious but dilapidated family estate: Allerdale Hall, a vast Gothic mansion in the remote English hills. Set atop a subterranean mine, the blood-red clay seeps through the snow and stains the mountainside, earning it the name “Crimson Peak”. But Edith and Sharpe are not alone. The towering house is also home to Hiddleston’s sister Lucille (Chastain), a sullen and mysterious figure.
Crimson Peak is writer and director Guillermo del Toro’s attempt to hark back to a classic, old-fashioned, grand Hollywood production in the Gothic romance genre. Del Toro claims it has been about 30 years since someone last made a Gothic romance on this scale. It involves heightened melodrama layered with a lot of darkness and the atmospherics of a creepy fairytale. There is no doubt the visuals – the sets, settings and costumes – are striking.
However, what starts out as a rather intriguing, if offbeat, period fantasy drama deteriorates as the filmmakers move to tease out the back-story and head towards the climax. No amount of internalising or externalising evil, as the case may be, can save the two lead females from the rot that sets in … and that includes some shocking dialogue.
I can only imagine they must have seen the director’s name and thought: he has made the truly frightening Pan’s Labyrinth (which he also wrote, directed and produced), so it would be a pleasure to work with him. Problem is, Crimson Peak is not nearly as good a script and you know how it is when a writer and director reaches their peak – there’s only one way to go from there.
At least a few of the all black and all red ghostly figures are reasonably construed. Then you have orchestrated violence and bloodshed, with one scene particularly graphic. In the end, it all becomes a bit too ridiculous and you are left wondering why you bothered in the first place.
Ladies – Wasikowska and Chastain, that is – you should have passed on this one! Perhaps another three decades need to pass before we are “gifted” another large scale Gothic romance?
Rated MA, Crimson Peak scores a 6 out of 10.
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Charlie Hunnam, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain
Release Date: 15 October 2015
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television