I do like a ghost story, and I am also a fan of director Guillermo Del Toro, so I was interested to see “Crimson Peak”. Starring Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain, it’s a gothic horror in the old style used by Hammer horror films of the fifties, sixties and seventies. A young American heiress in the nineteenth century loses her mother at a young age, and is visited by a ghostly apparition of her. As an adult, she is swept off her feet by an English nobleman and taken to his rundown ancestral home, where she quickly learns all is not well, with the help of more ghosts.
The cinematography and atmosphere are truly spectacular. This is a beautiful film, full of sumptuous costumes, a suitably creepy decaying mansion, and an exterior wilderness. It manages to communicate the feeling that there is no escape from here. The ghosts are gruesome and frightening, though not the real threat ultimately. The choice to portray the ghosts, not just as the dead, but as decaying remnants of themselves, is a fascinating one, and really enhanced the supernatural weirdness of the film. The staining of the snow with the red clay, which of course is reminiscent of blood, only enhances the sinister scene. This is a fantastic backdrop where the drama can play out.
Unfortunately there are some issues with the plot. One early problem is that while Edith (Wasikowska) is taken in by Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston), the audience is made aware right from the start that he and his sister are not on the level. There are private conversations between them that tell the audience immediately that they are up to no good, even if it is not yet clear what their intentions are. Consequently there is no suspense, and the audience is merely waiting to see what kind of nefarious plan they have.
The death of Edith’s father is conveniently brushed over as accidental, even though Edith’s friend Dr McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) has his doubts. Does it take a doctor to work out that while it is possible for one to slip in a bathroom and hit one’s head on the basin, and that might even cause death potentially, the impact would not be sufficient to cause a dent in the victim’s skull? The death is obviously suspicious but no further action is taken.
Sharpe has preyed on other heiresses in the past, and the question I had was this. What happened to all their money? We are told Sharpe believes that the machine he has invented to mine the red clay will make him rich, and we can assume that money has been put into making that work. However, would such a machine take all that money? It is obvious they’ve made little attempt to repair their home. There is a great big hole in the ceiling through which rain and snow falls! It seems inconsistent to the plot that the money that they’ve been acquiring is being frittered away somehow, and we don’t get an explanation for that.
The ghosts seems to have little to do with the plot. Yes they give the heroine warnings, and point her in the right direction, but they are the only supernatural aspect of the story and are only peripherally involved. Consequently, I believe they could have been written out without any real effect on the plot. Sure, they were enjoyably creepy, but other than adding atmosphere, they didn’t need to be there.
The cast were mostly good, but where that is massively let down is in the casting of Mia Wasikowska as Edith. She is miscast in this role, and is quite wooden and insipid as Edith. The script does not help her, admittedly, as the allegedly intelligent Edith often does not act in a particularly intelligent way. Wasikowska is not good in this, with very much a one note performance throughout. There is no chemistry with her co-star Tom Hiddleston. I have nothing good to say about her in this film.
Tom Hiddleston is an excellent actor, and frankly deserved better material than he was given here. Sharpe is a conman, and at the start of the film this is clearly what we see. What is less convincing is his growing love for Edith. I think it was a tricky change to try to convey, and Hiddleston was hampered by a very limited co-star. As the psychological damage endured by the Sharpes becomes more clear, the character is supposed to be a clever man who likes to tinker, a survivor of abuse who is stuck in a bad situation, a co-conspirator with his sister in fraud and murder, completely under her thumb, in an incestuous relationship with her, and supposedly loving Edith. I think the character is written in a way that is quite scattered, and even an accomplished actor like Hiddleston cannot be all things to all people.
If there’s one actor in this who is great fun to watch it is Jessica Chastain as Lucille Sharpe. She scored the best role in the film and is a great deal of fun as the sinister and enthusiastically bonkers Lucille. From what is revealed of the Sharpe family Lucille and her brother were subjected to terrible abuse, which explains to some extent her insanity, as well as their unnaturally co-dependant relationship. Chemistry between Hiddleston and Chastain is far more apparent. Chastain relishes this role, positively chewing the scenery in the final showdown. She is the best part of the film.
‘Crimson Peak’ tries to be a Gothic horror/romance in the old style, but doesn’t entirely work. While I was watching I kept thinking that if it had been made back in the Hammer days it would have been more acceptable, but as a modern film it just cannot get away with a story that is extremely cliché and a script that should have been better thought out. As an homage to Hammer it simply is not good enough, re-treading old ground rather than doing anything new. It obviously owed a great deal to Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, being very derivative of that story. I found this film watchable, but don’t look for a great film here. That’s what I found disappointing. I think it could have, and should have, been a great film, with a bit more work.