Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Charlie Hunnam
Running Time:119 minutes
To say that I was looking forward to watching Crimson Peak is an understatement. Guillermo del Toro has been my favourite director ever since I watched Pan’s Labyrinth when I was 15, and I personally consider him to be the greatest living master of the horror genre. More than that, I’ve been in a state of perpetual excitement about the film ever since I first heard about it almost a year ago. Needless to say, if I was going to be disappointed by the film, it would be crushingly so. Fortunately, Crimson Peak is even better than I had hoped it would be.
Like all del Toro films, Crimson Peak is visually stunning. Every shot is a feast for the eyes, the camera panning through every meticulously crafted set at a curious angle so that no grand arch or ominous doorway goes unnoticed. I spotted numerous typically del Toro touches, like the angel on Edith’s mother’s gravestone that resembles the Angel of Death from Hellboy II. The use of colour is breath-taking, with flashes of vibrant red and ghostly blue standing out against the film’s largely sepia palette. The colour white is also used to great effect, whether it be a blanket of snow or a billowing dress; it appears in the film as a warning, for what starts off white is inevitably soon stained red.
Although billed largely as a horror film, Crimson Peak is more complicated than that. As del Toro himself has said, it’s more like a gothic romance with horror elements, as well as a Hitchcockian thriller in the mould of Rebecca or Suspicion. Rather than being a horror film itself, it plays out like a love letter to the history of the horror genre, specifically the campy scares of the Hammer horror films of the ‘50s, and gothic novels like The Castle of Otranto. Old-fashioned camera techniques, like the film’s frequent use of iris wipes, are a striking visual example of this, and at times make the film feel as though it were indeed made decades earlier.
As a main character, we couldn’t have asked for better than Edith Cushing. She’s a strong female character in the truest sense of the phrase, not in the shallow Hollywood way that takes “strong” to mean “aggressive and emotionless”. Beautifully played by Mia Wasikowska, Edith is the perfect mixture of smart and naïve, resilient and vulnerable. In short, she’s human, and she’s allowed to make mistakes and show weakness without becoming a damsel in distress. In fact, if this were a fairytale, by the film’s end she would very much be the knight in shining armour. Some might claim it unconvincing that someone as strong-willed as Edith could be so quickly charmed by Sir Thomas Sharpe, but I think that to argue as such is to do a disservice to both the complexity of Edith’s character and Tom Hiddleston’s acting. Thomas is charming, handsome, and shows a genuine interest in Edith’s writing, the thing she loves most – I’d argue that not to have her fall for him would be unconvincing.
Hiddleston plays Thomas with an enormous amount of complexity, allowing the viewer to dislike and fear him, whilst also being able to feel sympathetic towards him. On one level, Thomas is thoughtful, good-looking, and debonair; on another, he is weak, manipulative, and untrustworthy. Hiddleston captures both sides of his character perfectly, with the darker one always bubbling away just beneath the surface even when Thomas is at his most charming. In spite of his sins, Hiddleston makes him a genuinely tragic character: he is as much of a victim as he is a villain.
Although the acting is great all round, the best performance is unquestionably by Jessica Chastain as Lady Lucille Sharpe, Thomas’s haughty older sister. Chastain’s performance for most of the film is understated but discomfiting, and she plays Lucille as cold and domineering, with a deeply sinister glint in her eye. I don’t want to give too much away, but considering how clear the trailer makes it, I feel comfortable stating that Lucille is very much a villain and during the last twenty minutes, when just how bad she is comes to light, she is an absolute treat to watch. Chastain is wonderful for most of the film, but she is utterly compelling during those last few scenes. Unhinged and utterly terrifying, she doesn’t allow you to take your eyes off her for a second.
One final thing worth mentioning is, of course, the ghosts. Those of Crimson Peak are visually like a far more elegant yet visceral version of the one in Mama (which was also produced by del Toro), with the same pained, jerky movements and faces deformed by violence. They’re genuinely terrifying, as well as strangely beautiful in their bold colours and smoky outlines. Also, speaking of violence, as with Pan’s Labyrinth, don’t let the beautiful visuals fool you – beauty in del Toro’s films is always paired with grisly violence. I won’t go into specifics, but both films involve a character receiving a horrific facial wound that is wince-inducing to witness.
I mean it as no exaggeration when I say that Crimson Peak is a masterpiece. As bloody as it is beautiful, Guillermo del Toro’s latest film is part Hitchcockian thriller, part gothic romance, and entirely brilliant.