Crimson Peak (2015)

*Mild spoilers below!*

At the turn of the last century, in Buffalo, New York, heiress Edith Cushing aspires to be an author.  But instead she falls in love, and is whisked away to a crumbling pile in the chilly north of England.  She starts to realise that there is much about this strange place she doesn’t understand – and if she doesn’t make sense of it soon, she might not make it out at all.    Guillermo Del Toro gives us his own particular take on the gothic romance with this tale of ghosts and violence and passionate, monstrous love.

This definitely is a gothic romance, by the way, not a horror or a fairy story as others have described it.  Initially a literary genre of the late 18th century, gothic romances are basically coming of age stories, where an innocent and vulnerable young woman is thrust into a world of sex and death.  While appalling dangers beset her, her good heart and good sense ensure her survival, and she emerges battered but enlightened. Well, that’s the plan, anyway.

Naturally, Crimson Peak looks amazing, with an astonishing attention to detail and brilliant lighting.  Buffalo is bright and clean, a dynamic and modern place that looks to the future.   The waltz scene is sumptuous, bathed in soft golden light and a glorious, gliding score.  Many a heart set a flutter, I’m sure, as roguish Thomas wins Edith’s heart with a dance.  Yet not everything is rosy: when they share their first, passionate kiss, Edith is beautifully illuminated, but Thomas is all in shadow.

The costumes are also wonderfully evocative.  Lucille is all chilly composure and unruffled elegance in black lace gloves and an elaborate crimson gown.  But as she starts to lose her grip she becomes visibly disordered, rattling about the house in loose chiffon and billowing velvet.  Edith’s clothes start off with a delicately feminine, virginal silhouette, which becomes more structured as she grows in confidence.  With capes and hats and padded shoulders, she literally takes up more space.  Yet as her vulnerability emerges, she starts wandering the halls in her nightgown, loose blonde hair down to her waist.  She looks like a child.  Or a hospital patient.

Colour plays into this too.  We initially see Thomas in black and Lucille in red, while Edith wears shades of white.  So far, so obvious.  But as the story progresses, Edith wears increasingly vivid shades of yellow and gold, suggesting blossoming love and self-assurance.  Everyone’s outfit usually contains a subtle trace of black – we’re all sinners, after all.  And Lucille may start off a scarlet woman, but at home dons a dark blue outfit that makes her look rather like her mother…

‘The house breathes’, Thomas tells Edith, and Allerdale Hall really does feel like a character in its own right.  Crumbling and isolated, the weather comes in through a hole in the roof, and blood red clay seeps up through the floor boards, staining the ladies dresses.  It has an otherworldly quality, as though it wasn’t really built to be lived in at all.  It belongs more to the dead than the living, yet it dominates proceedings – very little action takes place outside.  The house dominates the siblings as well.  While Thomas looks to the future by restoring the house and mine, Lucille seems more concerned with the past, thumbing her nose at her long dead parents: ‘I image mother seeing everything we do here.’ *shudder*

With most ghost stories – especially haunted house-style ones – you’re not always sure if the ghosts are real, or just a product of a fevered imagination.  Not here.  Five minutes in, and we are shown in no uncertain terms that the supernatural is very real.  But while ghosts have a strong presence in the world, it’s the other humans you need to look out for.

The hint of threat is ever present and while we don’t see much violence, when we do it’s brutal.  You can almost feel the crunch of bone and parting of flesh.  At one shocking death, I actually heard the audience gasp.   In this heightened, opulent world, the violence feels very real – and the consequences of it are devastating.  Death and loss ripple out. Everyone in this story has buried a loved one.  History looms over them all, but will they try to ignore the past, brood on it, or learn from it?

The main performances are all excellent. Tom Hiddleston is great as Thomas – definitely a wrong ‘un, but surprisingly sympathetic as he starts to fall for Edith.  Jessica Chastain is on hair-raising form as the increasingly unstable Lucille, her every word brimming with pent up fury.  Yet this is Edith’s story and Mia Wasikowska does a fine job.  In lesser hands she could come across as insipid, but she combines innocence with a blazing intelligence and relatable curiosity.  And it’s always fun to see women play such an active role in their own salvation.

At heart, though, this is a love story.  Love drives all the characters, for better or worse.  Yet even at the end of the tale, none of them can really understand it.  Perhaps that’s the point.  Dark and rich and intriguing, Crimson Peak completely pulls you in.  Any fan of Del Toro or of romances with a bit of bite will have a great time here.  I know I did.

What did you think?  Were you swept along with the story, or left out in the cold?  Was the violence too much for you? Let me know!

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