Sunday, October 25, 2015

Crimson Peak

The first thing you notice about Crimson Peak is how deliberately, consciously old-fashioned it is.  This is a movie that starts with the camera zooming in on the cloth-bound cover of a book bearing the film's title, and whose scene breaks (chapter breaks, we should say) are signaled by irising in on a prop or a character's face, as if we were watching an old-timey silent film.  The second thing you notice is that it's a movie for and about bookish people.  The heroine is a writer, and characters name-drop Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Arthur Conan Doyle as if these authors and their work were fixtures in their lives.  The third thing you notice--though seeing as Crimson Peak comes to us from director Guillermo del Toro, most of us will have walked into the movie theater expecting it--is how gorgeous this movie is, every set dressed to within an inch of its life, the late Victorian interiors groaning with heavy furniture, busy wallpaper, and knickknacks on every available surface.  And all shot with ceaseless attention to light and color, whether it's a candlelit ballroom, a steam-filled bathhouse, or the wintry, creaking edifice that gives the film its name.  Taken together, these elements combine to create a film that is so undeniably its own thing that it's hard not to love it just for that fact.  In a landscape in which movies--and genre movies in particular--seem to come with a preset visual vocabulary and a checklist of tropes and plot twists, it's so refreshing to see one that strikes its own path.  If Crimson Peak were shorter, this might be enough to make it an utter delight, but unfortunately, the longer the film draws on, the easier it is to notice that the originality of its ideas and execution stops short at its script.

Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is an aspiring writer in late 19th century New York.  When her businessman father is petitioned for an investment by Thomas Sharpe, an impoverished English baronet (Tom Hiddleston), Edith is intrigued despite herself, and when her father suddenly and mysteriously dies, she seizes on Thomas as a cure for her heartache.  Thomas whisks her off to his ancestral home, colloquially known as Crimson Peak because of the way the red clay stains the snow blood-red, where the couple are greeted by Thomas's seemingly solicitous sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain).  Almost at once, Edith begins to perceive ghosts who seem to be warning her off the estate, and it quickly becomes clear that Thomas and Lucille have dark plans for her.

Though marketed as a horror movie, Crimson Peak makes little bones about actually being a work of Gothic romance.  This is not, in itself, a problem, and in fact it's yet another way in which this movie is different and original.  The problem is that Crimson Peak isn't a particularly good example of its chosen genre, that it often seems a little bored with that genre's tropes, rushing through them, and missing most of its emotional beats, in order to get to its grand guignol conclusion.  At its core, Gothic romance is about a particularly feminine type of anxiety.  In a social landscape in which women have it repeatedly drummed in that their only purpose in life, the only thing that gives them value, is finding a husband, it takes the supposedly "happy ending" of a romantic story, in which our heroine is swept off her feet by prince charming, and asks: what if something that seems too good to be true actually is?  Some Gothic romances draw their tension from the fact that their heroine isn't someone who is "supposed" to end up with the prince--that she is poor, or old, or unattractive--while in others she is perfectly eligible.  In some the love story is real, while in others it's merely a trick being played for ulterior purposes.  But they all come down to the same realization--that the supposedly happy ending of a traditional romance involves a woman putting herself completely within the power of a total stranger, allowing him to take her away from everything and everyone she knows, and that this is really fucking scary.

Hardly any of this tension is present in Crimson Peak.  Where most Gothic romances will take time to build up the sense of wrongness that the heroine begins to feel in her marriage and new home, and to veer back and forth between trusting and suspecting the new husband, Crimson Peak makes it clear, even before Edith is married, that Thomas and Lucille are up to no good.  It isn't even hard to guess what their dastardly plan is, and it turns out to be depressingly mundane.  Most crucially, Edith is not the sort of heroine to whom a Gothic romance could believably happen.  She lacks the vulnerability that might leave her open to Thomas's manipulation, and thus to the psychological horror that is an integral component of the genre.  As introduced at the beginning of the movie, Edith is beautiful, intelligent, wealthy, respected by her father and social circle, encouraged in her vocation of writing, and accustomed to running her own household.  Something could have been done with this, obviously--Thomas could have taken it as a given that his good looks and charm would wrap Edith around his finger, while Edith herself remained detached, but instead the film just takes it as a given that Edith is enchanted without ever convincing the audience of this.

Wasikowska and Hiddleston are perfectly cast--she has already played the quintessential Gothic heroine, in Cary Fukunaga's 2011 Jane Eyre, while he has made a career out of playing beautiful, weak-willed, heartless young men--but the script gives them nothing to work with.  In one scene, Thomas criticizes Edith's novel by telling her that it mouths platitudes about great love and overpowering passion, but can't get at the truth of these emotions.  He might as well be talking about the film itself, which never manages to sell either Edith's fascination with Thomas, or the grief and loneliness that supposedly drive her into his arms.  The core task of a Gothic romance is to convince us that its heroine wouldn't just leave the house and marriage when things got sufficiently sketchy--either because she's so in love, or because she has nowhere else to go, or because she's been sufficiently gaslighted into doubting her own perceptions and judgment.  This Crimson Peak can't do--it's as if all its characters know that they need to arrive at and stay in the house in order for the story to proceed, and dutifully go about achieving this no matter how little sense their actions make.

del Toro's attempt to compensate for this is through the ghosts that Edith perceives at Crimson Peak (and here is where the film's claim that it is a Gothic romance rather than a horror story starts to break down).  Fittingly for him, these are a unique and striking visual touch--half anatomical sketch, half dabs of bold color that stand out against the fussy, busy sets.  As in The Devil's Backbone, still my favorite of del Toro's films, these ghosts act more as a commentary on the story than as movers of it--Edith even says, when describing her novel, that it is not a ghost story, but a story with a ghost in it, and this is clearly intended as a meta-statement about the movie.  But they are a touch of otherworldly weirdness that the film, which otherwise feels depressingly mundane despite the efforts put into the Crimson Peak set, desperately needs.  Equally engaging is Chastain's turn as Lucille, which quickly steals the film out from under Wasikowska, and particularly Hiddleston.  Lucille does very little to conceal her strangeness, or the intensity of her attachment to Thomas, and Chastain imbues her with the kind of force of personality that makes it difficult for anyone around her to comment on these things.  As with much else about Crimson Peak, there's never any doubt that Lucille is scary and dangerous, but for once, that lack of ambiguity works to the film's advantage--we understand why Edith wouldn't want to call out this clearly deranged woman, and feel motivated to appease her.

This makes it a particular shame when the film's denouement reduces Lucille to the kind of ranting monster we've seen in millions of horror movies, while trying to make Thomas a more complex, and even heroic, figure.  Once again, the casting works in del Toro's favor--Hiddleston's most famous character is a manipulative, unrepentant murderer, whom he has nevertheless imbued with enough humanity and vulnerability to make him at least a little bit sympathetic--while the script fails him.  By the end of the movie, when Thomas has decided that he loves Edith too much to let Lucille kill her, we've already learned that the siblings have killed Thomas's three previous wives.  What's more, Thomas lured Edith to Crimson Peak because he was falling in love with her, even though he knew that doing so would be signing her death warrant.  Taken together, this should make him a pathetic, weak-willed creature, perhaps capable of a spark of goodness--though only where his own lusts and desires are concerned (it seems particularly relevant, for example, that all of Thomas's previous wives were older, unattractive women).  Instead, Crimson Peak tries to make Thomas uncomplicatedly heroic, even partly responsible for Edith's survival, which feels completely unearned.

For all its flaws, and its disappointingly straightforward story, Crimson Peak is still too much its own thing to fully dismiss.  Its visuals, storytelling style, and atmosphere are so distinct and unusual that one leaves the theater less concerned with how little it does with them, and more consumed with how much could be done.  What if Edith were a more complicated figure, and her feelings for Thomas more overpowering?  What if Lucille and Edith had spent more time together, with their relationship gaining the primacy that the film gives Edith and Thomas's anemic love story?  What if there were some real question about Thomas's loyalties and affections?  The setting is so ripe with possibilities, and del Toro's visual work is so rich and evocative, that it's impossible not to imagine Crimson Peak as the richer, darker Gothic romance it could have been, instead of the rather paint-by-numbers horror story it ends up being.  So many horror movies fail because beneath their suggestive mysteries and eerie atmosphere, they have nothing new to add to the genre.  Crimson Peak creates a world that is utterly its own, and so, despite the fact that its story is entirely familiar, it lingers in the mind.

3 comments:

Winnie said...

This is a really great breakdown. Being a fan of Gothic I *wanted* to like this movie a lot more than I did and I think you're exactly right as to why it didn't work...Edith needed to be more vulnerable. Maybe a different actress would have helped... (I've always found Mia overrated) but ultimately I think it was the script. Chastain of course was fantastic.

OT but someday I'd love to see a review from you of "The Deep Blue Sea" with Hiddleston and Weisz.

raz greenberg said...

I agree that the film's attempts at scares were, for the most part, unsuccessful, althougb the climatic scenes had their share of shock-value, if only for their brutality. I also agree that Thomas and Lucille's plot was too obvious and predictable - although seeing it unfold around Edith had its disturbing moments. And of course, del Toro's visuals are like nothing else in Hollywood - which kind of made me sad that he had to give up "The Hobbit", and even more so, that nobody considered him for handling any of the Harry Potter films.
Though I thought Edith was a poorly-written character and Wasikowska was miscast for the role, I did find myself sympathizing with both Thomas and Lucille as the film progressed. True, they're the villains - but in a sense, they have no choice. They hang on to their filthy, crumbling family castle and the evils it represents because they know nothing else - and there's an interesting historical subtext here, I think, about why the future-facing America is about to inherit the past-facing England as the world's leading power.
I thought Chastain was great - she is a superb actress, but Hollywood often can't decide on the right roles for her, often casting her as strong, confident, but also one-dimensional character (as seen recently in "The Martian"). In "Crimson Peak", as in the overlooked "A Most Violent Year"she fits her role perfectly as the woman whose hard life made cold, calculared and ruthless. I could feel her pain and desperation as, close to the film's end, she realizes that her world is about to fall apart and decides to fight for it all the way.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Speaking of Thomas and Lucille's lack of options and emotional entrapment, here's an interesting reading of the film by Rachel Acks that sees Thomas as a victim of Lucille's control and abuse. I'm not entirely persuaded by it - as you say, Raz, I think both siblings are equally trapped and equally toxic towards one another, though Lucille is obviously the dominant one - and either way I don't think there's enough work in the script to actually sell this reading on screen. But it's an interesting counterpoint to how I saw the characters.

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