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Visual flair can’t save Crimson Peak from thematic emptiness

By Isaac Rosso Klakovich

Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) wanderers through the halls of the Crimson Peak mansion
Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) wanderers through the halls of the Crimson Peak mansion

In 2006, Guillermo del Toro demonstrated his skill in the fantasy-horror genre with his critically acclaimed film “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Sadly, despite having a similar genre, del Toro’s latest film, “Crimson Peak,” ultimately fails to recapture any of the magic that made “Pan’s Labyrinth” a success.

In the first act of “Crimson Peak,” the shy Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) falls for the mysterious Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) in Buffalo, N.Y. around the turn of the 20th Century. After Edith’s father is brutally murdered, she marries Thomas and goes with him and his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), to their crumbling mansion in England. From the second they arrive at this haunted house, it becomes apparent that the entire first act only existed to get the characters to the film’s scenic destination. Sadly, this is indicative of what is to come in the rest of the film. “Crimson Peak” is more concerned with moving its plot forward than dissecting the relationship the characters have with their past.

This complaint might seem unjust to someone who has not seen “Crimson Peak.” But, after watching the film, it is clear that del Toro is trying to strike the perfect balance between plot and thematic depth, and ends up letting the scale tip too far towards plot.

Besides a first act that del Toro renders thematically pointless, constant injections of foreshadowing and “revelations” of motivation make the characters feel less like real people, ruining much of the dialogue. There are numerous times when two characters have conversations explaining why they are doing what they are doing, clearly only for audience’s benefit. The characters also repeat certain phrases over and over, to drive it into audience’s heads that they need to remember some bit of information. This is never more egregious than when the characters constantly talk about their tea, ruining any surprise when the malicious motives behind the serving of the tea are revealed.

Official Poster of Crimson Peak
Official Poster of Crimson Peak

The case of the tea demonstrates the core issue with all this plotting: it’s predicable. This is why the film doesn’t fully work as a fun and mindless haunted house movie. Half of the fun of those films is having a twist that isn’t obvious, but still makes sense. “Crimson Peak” isn’t only over-saturated with plot, it’s over-saturated with obvious plot.

Despite all the film’s flaws, it is very visually appealing. Many aspects of del Toro’s direction are highly successful. His camera constantly moves about the lavish sets, inhabiting the locations so beautifully that the audience really feels that they are there with the characters. This would have been impossible without the exceedingly great production design the film has. The Sharpes’ mansion is vast, yet confined, evoking gothic horror in a way that will truly terrify its audience. Del Toro’s camera makes this dynamic all the more haunting.

Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain) is a haunting presence throughout Crimson Peak
Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain) is a haunting presence throughout Crimson Peak

“Crimson Peak” contains some average and some excellent performances given by the lead actors. Wasikowska gives the weakest of the three central performances, at points coming off as too much of a Boy Scout and unable to fully deliver in the most emotionally demanding scenes. However, Wasikowska’s lines are some of the weakest, so it is difficult to tell if she is completely to blame. Hiddleston gives a great performance. He does an excellent job portraying a creepy and psychotic monster, yet the audience can’t help but be intrigued by him. Then there is Chastain, who gives another incredible performance. While she might not be as good as she was in “The Tree of Life” or “Interstellar,” there are few performances that do so much with such a poor script. If there is one thing that will leave viewers terrified after “Crimson Peak” it isn’t the bloody ghosts, but the quiet lines from Chastain that reveal a sinister monster underneath that pleasant face.

Rating: 2/4 stars

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