“It’s not a ghost story. It’s a story with a ghost in it.”
That’s how Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) explains a story that she’s written to a publisher named Ogilvie (Jonathan Hyde) early in Crimson Peak. She might as well be speaking for writer/director Guillermo del Toro. In spite of how Universal has sold this film, Crimson Peak is only a horror film in the broadest of terms. This pair of sentences serves to warn audiences about what they’re not going to get. Instead, Crimson Peak is a gothic romance. It’s a story about a young woman with no interest in fitting into societal expectations for young women, instead opting to write and become her own person, who ends up in a passionate romance with a man who inspires something in her she thought she was beyond. But that desire leads her to another country, where Edith is forced to solve the mysteries in the rotting Allerdale Hall.
And yes, there are ghosts. Edith first sees a ghost as a child, shortly after her mother’s passing, and they recur more frequently when she’s older. While they may be frightening to Edith, though, these ghosts are not malevolent. They’re decaying elements of events from the past who provide chilling warnings of caution. The true evil lies not among the ghosts, but among the living, and in the living world is where Edith must confront her foe.
The man who sweeps Edith off her feet is Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a Baronet from England. He comes to Buffalo, NY in search of money to help him finance the creation of a steam drill that he’s designed. Before his presentation to Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), he meets Edith, his daughter, and she finds herself intrigued by this man. She recognizes his belief in a dream that others don’t take seriously, and feels a connection to this stranger, especially in the wake of her book being rejected by Ogilvie for (chief among other issues) not including a love story.
Thomas is not alone in Buffalo; his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), accompanies him, and when Cushing rejects their proposal, it has less to do with their idea and more about something rotten he senses from both Thomas and Lucille. He senses something amiss, and his instincts are correct. But Edith finds herself drawn closer to Thomas, much to the disappointment of the young Dr. McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), who pines after her.
After an unexpected event, Edith quickly marries Thomas and leaves Buffalo. The move is a mixture of following her heart and a need to get away from something painful. In leaving Buffalo, Thomas and Edith travel back to the family home in England he shares with Lucille, Allerdale Hall. Once the three of them are under the same roof, events quickly begin to spiral out of control.
What happens at Allerdale Hall will likely not surprise audiences, at least not significantly. The story is fairly straightforward, but it works for the film; the lack of surprise is more than compensated for by the details, starting with the cast. Most notably, Chastain owns this film, especially once the three main characters arrive at Allerdale Hall. Her performance is a heightened form of villainy that is on the line between chilling and hilarious, and Chastain seems to relish the opportunity to elegantly walk that line like she owns it. Hiddleston, meanwhile, gives a performance that will likely be memorialized in GIFs on Tumblr within 24 hours of this review’s publication. He plays the romantic angle well, and more than sells the relationship between Thomas and Edith. That’s more necessary than it should be, because Wasikowska (fine actress that she is) doesn’t quite sell the passion part of this story. It’s odd, because she’s demonstrated chemistry with Hiddleston before in Only Lovers Left Alive. That fire is a key element to this film, though, and Wasikowska simply fails to ignite it.
The details extend, not surprisingly, to the visual style of the film. The budget was $50 million, according to del Toro, but it feels far more opulent. The costumes alone are the kind that, if this were more of a straight period piece, would win major hardware during awards season. Allerdale Hall is stunningly gorgeous, even in its decay. The roof over the center of the house has rotted away, leaving an open hole where leaves and eventually snow fall into the home. It’s a breathtaking visual that changes frequently during that portion of the film. The home is built on valuable red clay, which has the effect of turning the eventual snowfall both inside and outside the home blood red (hence the name Crimson Peak).
More than with most films, I’m curious about how audiences will respond to Crimson Peak. Part of my curiosity is rooted in just how different the film is from what’s been promoted, and while fans of del Toro will likely not be shocked, I can see general audiences being surprised by the actual film. There’s not much in the film that’s actually shocking, and the bits that are come more from a few shockingly violent scenes than anything supernatural. What I see, though, is Guillermo del Toro creating a film that, even in its simplicity, feels 100% like a Guillermo del Toro film. I’m all for that.