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USA 2015
Directed by
Guillermo del Toro
119 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Chris Thompson
2.5 stars

Crimson Peak

Synopsis: From an early age, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) understands that ghosts are real, even though she is too young to understand the warning her mother’s ghost gives to “beware Crimson Peak”. Later, as a young woman with ambitions to be a writer, she ignores the misgivings of her father (Jim Beaver) and marries the handsome young Baronet, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) who is visiting America in search of investors for his red clay mine in England. Edith travels with her new husband and his sister, Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain) to the crumbling family mansion in Cumberland where her ability to see ghosts threatens to reveal the dark secrets that are held within its decaying walls.

Falling somewhere between the over-the-top stupidity of Pacific Rim (2013) and the sublime allegory of Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) del Toro’s latest work feels like it should be a horror film but, really, it isn’t.  Nor is it a ghost story, despite Edith’s declaration in the opening line that she knows ghosts are real and the rather gruesomely beautiful evocations of the spirits of the dead throughout the film. Which is a shame, because the rather run-of-the-mill gothic romance, which occupies most of the screen time, really needed those ghosts to engage more directly with the unfolding of the story in order to raise the stakes for our heroine and sharpen the villainy of our conniving siblings.

What this film does get right, though, is its production design (by Thomas E Sanders) and its art direction (by Brandt Gordon) which is sumptuous and visceral, deriving its crimson theme from the blood-red clay upon which the old house is built; a clay so all pervasive that it seeps up through the snow in winter to give the place (and the film) its name.  In addition to its symbolic colour palette , the film is littered with exquisite objects and mechanical devices, most of which get used in the process of both concealing and revealing elements of the story.

Plus, of course, there is the house itself; an overbearing mausoleum that feels as mortally wounded by time as the Sharp family itself. The old mansion has its mandatory attic that once housed the children’s nursery, and the subterranean cellar where Edith is told she must never go, all linked by a rickety iron-grilled elevator that trundles up and down between the awful memories of the past and the awful goings on of the present. If only the story (which, at times, feels as creaky as the house) was a match for these wonderful visuals and if only the style of the film was able to grab hold of the many opportunities it has to be genuinely scary, then we might be sitting forward in our seats instead of sitting back and letting it all wash over us.

Nevertheless, with a trio of actors the calibre of Wasikowska, Chastain and Hiddleston, and the rich settings within which they perform, many of the shortcomings of the screenplay can be overlooked. In the end, though, when the predictable secrets have all been revealed and the various comeuppances have been played out,  it’s hard not to come away feeling like it could have, should have, been so much more.




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