Saturday, October 17, 2015

Review: "Crimson Peak"

Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Runtime: 119 minutes

In an early flashback in Crimson Peak, a ghost whispers to young Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) that she should beware of the titular location. A similar warning should be given out to those going to see Guillermo Del Toro's latest film under the wrong impression. If you want to be either scared witless or grossed out by blood and gore, look elsewhere. But if you want to see a film that gorgeously translates the themes and tropes of gothic romance to the screen - albeit with flashes of the supernatural and R-rated content - look no further. Mr. Del Toro courted mainstream appeal with his last film, the glorified machines vs. monsters B-movie Pacific Rim. Let his newest endeavor, despite being made in English and through the studio system, sees the Mexican auteur returning to his roots, with sumptuous and haunting results.

The first ghost appears only moments into Crimson Peak, and past that point, you'd be forgiven for thinking you were in the wrong theater. The amber-tinted images the capture the hushed romance of Edith and the mysterious Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) feel more in line with The Age of Innocence than anything remotely connected to the horror or supernatural thriller dramas. Despite the increased appearance of ghouls and ghosts later, the romance portion of the film is where Mr. Del Toro's attention really lies. Wasikowska's Edith is an aspiring novelist, and in one scene she is met with confusion from an editor who tries to pigeonhole her short story as a "ghost story." "I like to think of it as a story with a ghost in it," is her reply, and the line doubles as Del Toro's mission statement for Crimson Peak as well. 

It's fitting that Wasikowska plays the story's hero, seeing as she's already proven her worth playing the eponymous role of Jane Eyre, subject of one of the most revered Gothic romances in literature. In this new venture, Wasikowska and Del Toro have created a protagonist who remains fiercely independent and inquisitive, even as her situation deteriorates. The reasons for Edith's eventual endangerment are best left unclear, but - quite obviously - they stem from the presence of Thomas and his standoffish sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). 

Del Toro has melded a variety of influences (Jane Eyre, Hammer horror films, Rebecca) that could have proven unwieldy. But even when the influences are obvious or expected, the delivery is fresh when filtered through the director's vision. Del Toro, working with a wide range of new technical collaborators, has put his visual stamp on every inch of Crimson Peak, and it's often ravishing to behold. Even if the mix of genres fails to fully convince, you can always get lost in the immaculately designed sets. In typical Del Toro fashion, Crimson Peak's settings, clothes, and even people, are simultaneously gorgeous and grotesque.  

Equally impressive is how elegantly Del Toro and co. keep the story moving. The director's English-language films, to date, have all been his weakest from a pacing standpoint. Crimson Peak, thankfully, bucks that trend. Enough time is given to Edith and Thomas' courtship to make it convincing, yet the film is never bogged down by the period details. There are moments of visual wonderment, but they are often captured through smoothly edited passages and informative camera movements that never allow Crimson Peak's atmosphere to stagnate. 

Fantastic sets are one thing, you may ask, but what about the people inhabiting those densely designed settings? Crimson Peak's characters are largely meant to evoke other iconic roles, meaning they lack a true specificity. But that doesn't stop the cast from have a grand time vamping it up, all while staying sincere. Wasikowska does the wan intelligence bit superbly, keeping Edith sharp(e) even when she (and the audience) are left in the dark. Personally, Hiddleston is the biggest surprise of the cast. As somehow who has repeatedly left indifferent by his work, I was delighted by how well he captured Thomas' Byronic facade. The role could have called for nothing more than a handsome face, but the actor does some splendid work opposite his co-stars. And speaking of co-stars, he has two excellent ones in Wasikowska and Chastain. The latter is ultimately the film's MVP, despite a misleading one-note approach at the outset. Lucille's raven hair, like her psyche, comes unraveled over the course of the story, and to watch Chastain (affecting a mostly solid British accent) play such an overtly creepy (and later menacing) character is another testament to her range. 

The three central characters are tasked with charting a psychological game that is constantly shifting gears, and Del Toro does a marvelous job of subverting audience expectations. Crimson Peak's eventual payoff is not immediately impressive when compared to, say, The Sixth Sense. But it is a rewarding all the same. Del Toro's script prepares to go big, but then pulls the rug out from under the viewer in favor of a twist that plays more on ideas than plot developments or supernatural gotcha moments. Ghosts may be real in the world of Crimson Peak, but they, like Thomas and Lucille, a far from what they seem. The film's opening warning specifies what Edith should beware at Crimson Peak. It never specified whom...

Grade: B+/A-

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