Director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy 1&2) tries his hand at gothic romance. Young Edith is charmed by the European aristocrat Mr. Sharpe and eventually moves into his palace, where spooky things occur.
Knowing that such stories are a bit… old-fashioned nowadays, in the first 10 minutes, Del Toro lets his characters explain some things about his movie. The main character Edith is writing a book and the editor thinks it’s a ghost story, but according to Edith it isn’t. It’s more like a story with a ghost in it, she explains. Then she hears that she needs to add a love story to it but she thinks that is old-fashioned. Del Toro’s film then proceeds precisely down that very path, putting Edith herself in a story of love and ghosts. But it isn’t a ghost story, and that’s ok.
It is kind of wry therefore that many have criticized this film for not being scary, and for being a love story, while the director forearmed himself in the opening scenes by showing the way. Any blame for false expectations about the film should be directed then at the marketing and those mysterious people that make trailers. What Guillermo del Toro set out to do was to film the kind of scary story that Edgar Allan Poe or Oscar Wilde would write, a hundred years ago.
It’s a beautiful film to look at, a painter’s film, with dark red and dark green colors. A hint of sepia to sketch the world of a century ago. It also has a very dramatic heart, for example when it lets thunder coincide with a shot of one of the characters. All the emotions are simple, dark and dramatic, just like the colors. You can see this in how the love story develops; in how Edith and Thomas exchange aristocratic quips that hint at deeper desires. You can also see this in the camerawork, how it frames the characters in dark, moody palaces, and in the sparse use of lights.
It’s delightfully gothic. Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain prance around like they could grow vampire teeth at any moment, and Mia Wasikowska plays a misfit girl who is entranced by captured ghosts on photographs. These actors are perfectly cast for their roles. There’s a Tim Burton-esque sentimentality for darkness and passion. The film is also mostly style and production design, and the story itself is straightforward and moves rather slowly. This too is much like an 19th century gothic romance novel.
The ghost elements feel actually a bit out of place. They are rare in the first half of the movie and when they occur, it is as if the film temporarily changes tone. By themselves, the ghost scenes have a good tension and creepiness to them, but visually it is like they immigrated from another movie. The eventual script could have been improved perhaps by tying the supernatural elements and the mundane stronger together. As it is now, we have slow story, albeit beautifully told, with out-of-tone ghost apparitions. Another missed opportunity is that there is mystery missing in the story. Bad plans are talked about quite openly, and as a viewer we observe too much, and see too little from just Edith’s point of view.
Crimson Peak is mostly good. The casting, the acting, the beautiful compositions of shots and rich locations and all the technical details are top quality. The story itself is the weakest part. It is slow and doesn’t raise enough curiosity. It’s still worth seeing though for the stunning visuals and sheer filmmaking mastery.