As gorgeous to behold as Crimson Peak (2015) often is, Guillermo del Toro’s latest film has zero dramatic gravitas. It’s pop-up book Gothic, rather than a full-bodied recreation of dreamlike exotic weirdness. As a doom-filled romance, it doesn’t pass muster because the characters, no matter how excellently played by Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain, are hindered by a poorly written screenplay. Some might call del Toro and Matthew Robbins’ take ‘classical’, but really that suggestion is just too polite and charitable.
Crimson Peak is locked in by a somnambulist, formulaic vibe and comes off as contented to go through Gothic 101 motions without recourse to reinvention or refreshing vigour. It’s as airless and choking as a Victorian parlour. “What do you think, does it look the part?” Hiddleston’s shady baronet and inventor, Thomas Sharpe, asks his new bride and millionaire heiress Edith Cushing (played with typical pluck by Wasikowska), as they stand in front of the crumbling family seat, somewhere high upon England’s vast moorlands.
The answer is ‘yes’, but with reservations. Allerdale Hall, also known unofficially as ‘Crimson Peak’, because when it snows heavily the clay the area is famous for turns the ground blood-red, certainly is nightmarish to behold, but it’s quite gonzo and lacks ruinous elegance, as well as all sense of good taste. It’s no Strawberry Hill House, that’s for sure. Sometimes, the imagination of a director running riot can lead to profoundly daft visions. The dank, melting, waxy Allerdale Hall looks like the Disney castle if built by Gaudí. The over-the-top mansion does, though, fittingly capture the sense of aristocratic rot and malicious intent of the Sharpes. It also chimes in unison with the film’s blatant sociopolitical subtext. If Allerdale Hall is representative of decaying gentry, it must be lit accordingly.
The vivid cinematography, lighting rooms and corridors in absinthe greens, flame oranges and velvety blues, is worthy of Mario Bava in his pomp, and the prowling camera, inching along corridors with ghostlike stealth is always enjoyable, even if creepy moments are wrecked by computer-generated ghouls and cheap jump scares resorting too often to quick cutting and cranking up the volume. Hampered by flaws and faults it may be, Crimson Peak is no dud. Chastain’s icy Lucille is a particular highlight, as is the giallo-esque murder sequence complete with black leather gloves and some hardcore gore effects, and Hiddleston sinks his teeth into the role of a Bluebeard torn between lovers. It’s just lacking a certain sense of depth and soul, as well revelations and surprises: key elements which made novels belonging to the genre such page-turners.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn