Crimson Peak, Guillermo del Toro’s first horror movie since Pan’s Labyrinth, is a pretty, self-reflexive – and pretty self-reflexive – item: both a story about stories, and the limitations of fiction to protect us from the predations of the real world, and a beautiful film about beauty, and how susceptible we are to it. It joins Inherent Vice, and perhaps even this week’s The Lobster, as the work of a director wearing their broken heart very much on their sleeve.
In 19th century New York, Mia Wasikowska’s aspirant writer Edith Cushing – younger viewers may need schooling in the reference – churns out tales haunted by the ghost of a mother who died young. The entire direction of her life changes upon the arrival of Tom Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an English baronet courting Edith’s father to invest in his plans to mine the red clay under the ancestral home he shares back in Cumberland with brooding sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain).
One look at the siblings’ rare combo of clothes and cheekbones, and you can see why the solitary Edith might fall for them, and turn to them for shelter after her father’s mysterious death: their Allendale Hall holds the exotic appeal of a Northanger Abbey, no matter that it proves a dusty, rusty pile scattered with dead bugs and sinking into said clay. Thus does del Toro’s tale offer its first lesson – that that which appears desirable can conceal nowt but rot – while bidding for every production design award going over the coming months.
What follows there has obvious Gothic antecedents: a touch of Rebecca in the vast portraits mounted over the staircase, a dash of Bluebeard in the basement’s bubbling clay pools. The casting of Wasikowska would appear a nod to both Jane Eyre and Stoker, the movies’ last Gothic fable to boast such conspicuous and consummate stylisation. Yet this is no mere pastiche. Del Toro absorbs all these influences, before going his own way: a heightened, very 21st century violence makes us feel the loss of key characters more keenly yet.
On the other hand, the plot mechanics are overlaid with tenderness and nuance. Hiddleston’s Sharpe is hardly some heartless, moustache-twirling bounder: the actor brings such remarkable subtlety to the arriviste’s first rejection of Edith – telling her she’s no good as a writer, in order to pocket the cheque her father has promised him – that it almost looks and sounds like constructive criticism, offered in the hope of making a loved one an even better scribe. Or was I, too, being fooled? (A punchline, buried in the closing credits, suggests not.)
She only belatedly recognises it, but Edith, throughout, is surrounded by protectors, inserted by a writer-director keener to watch over his heroine than put her through the mill: her late mother’s spirit, a hideous apparition who proves to have her child’s best interests at heart (“Beware of Crimson Peak!”), an American suitor investigating her father’s demise (Charlie Hunnam, much improved since Pacific Rim), and eventually the ghosts of this house, too, where even a gathering pool of snow comes to provide a soft landing amid the extraction of hard and ugly truths.
Del Toro makes great play of mirroring the mining going on outdoors – slowly bringing the paydirt to the surface – with that going on inside: Edith shuttling up and down in Allendale Hall’s lift, encountering hidden chambers, locked chests, wax cylinders with their own stories to tell. On form, as he is here, this filmmaker is one of the few to be as interested in the baroque possibilities of narrative as he is in those of design; his latest offers the pleasure of seeing a mystery being located, excavated and dusted down for all the world to see.
If that process isn’t as devastating as Pan’s Labyrinth, that may be down to the studio universe del Toro is now operating within: the final act is but a clever runaround, steered towards a happy ending. Yet it remains a work of notable craft and vision, hitting the story beats with style while generating images that look to have leapt fully formed from the del Toro imagination, onto his sketchpad, thence the screen. After several wobbly steps into blockbuster territory, it’s reassuring to see the director of Cronos making his own kind of movie with a whole lot more money.
(MovieMail, September 2015)
Crimson Peak screens on Channel 4 at 1.45am.