*I’m pretty sure I’ve avoided any major spoilers in this review, although there may be one or two very minor plot spoilers which have slipped through the net.**
I’ll be honest – I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Crimson Peak half as much as I did. For one, I’m terrible with scary movies. I’m the asshole in the third row of the cinema who threw their popcorn in the air at the first jumpy bit, and is now sitting with their fingers in their ears, humming loudly to dispel any future frights; and 2) my job consists almost entirely of reading and writing about Victorian gothic fiction. So I was pleasantly surprised on both counts to find that not only is Crimson Peak really not that scary (‘It’s not a ghost story; it’s a story with a ghost in it’ Mia Wasikowska’s heroine Edith Cushing explains helpfully in the first act), it’s also a sincere and genuinely affectionate love letter to the Gothic as a genre.
The plot is essentially a love story, albeit a dark and twisted one. Edith is a plucky American heiress and aspiring writer who falls for the mysterious Sir Thomas Sharp of Allerdale Hall. Upon arriving at her new home as Thomas’s wife, Edith discovers that not only must she put up with the holes in the roof, insects on just about every surface, and ominous red sludge oozing from below the floorboards, she must also share the place with Thomas’s sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) and a veritable undead girl band of wailing phantoms.
Admittedly, the first reference to nineteenth-century gothic fiction is clunky as hell: “I’d rather be Mary Shelley” Edith quips with a toss of her head when a critic compares her writing to that of Jane Austen. Yet as the film progresses, you begin to realize quite how much Guillermo del Toro knows his stuff. There are references to just about every canonical text you can think of from Ann Radcliffe to Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, to the much later writings of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Edith spends an awful lot of time standing in front of very yellow wallpaper). Some are blatant, such as the fact that Allerdale Hall, like Poe’s House of Usher, is sinking into the earth at an alarming rate; but others are so subtle as to make you question whether they are intentional or whether you’re just reading far too much into them.
As far as the ghosts themselves are concerned, the film goes out of its way to let you know that they are peripheral, metaphors for all kinds of non-supernatural states and emotions. In plot terms, the story would have progressed just the same without them. But they look gorgeous, if entirely horrifying and grotesque and exactly what you’d expect from a director who specialises in putting monstrous beauty on the screen.
This is a blog about Victorian masculinity, so it seems only right to spend a bit of time on the men in this movie. Tom Hiddleston gives a stand-out performance as Thomas Sharp, who is in many ways a man out of time. Whilst the film is set in the 1890s or very early 1900s (if the characters’ shiny new motor cars and newly-printed copies of Arthur Conan Doyle are anything to go by), Hiddleston’s Thomas Sharp dresses at least ten – but sometimes thirty or forty – years out of date. There are sections of his dialogue which are lifted straight out of Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester’s angst-ridden love for the innocent heroine, and as the plot develops you realise that Thomas Sharp is far more of a Romantic hero after the fashion of Byron or Shelley, than he is an embodiment of 1890s manliness. Initially, Benedict Cumberbatch had been signed up for the role although I’ll admit that, all things considered, I was glad of the switch. Hiddleston brings a vulnerability to the part which I’m not sure Cumberbatch would have played up in the same way, and which was absolutely crucial to the final scenes of the movie, which are terrifying and gnarly, but also deeply anguished.
The role of the modern, hard-working, rationalist hero is played by Charlie Hunnam, who previously worked with Del Toro in the 2013 giant-robot-fest that was Pacific Rim. Hunnam plays Dr Alan McMichael, an ophthalmologist (a very trendy, modern profession in the 1890s) and Sherlock Holmes fan who takes it upon himself to uncover the secrets of those flouncy, floppy-haired, Romantic-looking folk up on Crimson Peak. Hunnam is the movie’s golden boy, which works well in this case, given that all the sections set in America have a kind of golden hue to them which is so clearly meant to contrast with the washed-out ‘wuthering’ look of Allerdale Hall. He is a child of a gilded age of scientific rationalism and the ultimate embodiment of the anti-Gothic.
If I were to level a criticism at Crimson Peak it would be that unlike the movies of, say, Tarantino, which take a genre like the spaghetti western or the samurai film and play with it, get post-modern with it, and come up with something that is ultimately a revisionist take, this movie has clearly decided that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and left it at that. Crimson Peak is a perfect reproduction of a Gothic romance, but it steers clear of in any way revising or updating the rules of the game for a modern audience. If, like me, though, you’re all for a 2-hour game of ‘spot the gothic references’ and you want to play against a backdrop of absolutely gorgeous visuals and power casting, then you’re going to have a good time with Crimson Peak.