Sean K. Cureton

Gothic Romance as Macabre Farce

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on November 7, 2015 at 2:12 pm
Crimson Peak Theatrical Poster

Universal Pictures

Crimson Peak
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
2 out of 4 stars

Crimson Peak comes on heavy from the start, with its supplementary ghost story an element of the film’s fabric that becomes all pervasive, drowning out many of director Guillermo del Toro’s more subtle and rhetorical flourishes. The film itself is an incredibly atmospheric, gothic romance, as the director so vehemently made a point of stating in the promotion of his new film over the course of the last month, though its tender tragedy comes at the very center of a fairly convoluted, meager, and mediocre, melodramatic period piece. While the film’s stars Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain form a compelling lover’s triangle that is constantly on the verge of the cross-strangulation of all three aphrodisiacs, their story is largely put on hold in the service of a fairly route, haunted house ride. Implementing perhaps more CGI than would have been advisable, the monsters in del Toro’s latest all appear hyper accentuated to a fault, though perhaps this particular un-reality has more to do with the ludicrous plot, setting, and climactic clash over hallowed grounds that have been reddened through a plot contrivance exhaustingly convenient. The film itself never coheres into anything close to resembling an independent production, but instead peters out into several incongruent and seemingly discontinuous parts, with del Toro’s impeccable eye for detail and literary allusion his apparent undoing this time around.

Wasikowska is sympathetic enough in the role of Edith Cushing, an educated young woman living in what passes for America within the film’s disparate landscapes, on her father’s moneyed estate. Bearing a passing resemblance to such Victorian characters as Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the film makes blunt associations to the two former literary characters of the period of time that del Toro attempts to portray visually, even as his script plods along with overbearing dialogue and brashly cliché, narrative beats. When the film moves across the pond to Hiddleston and Chastain’s estate amid a cinematically secluded English country side, Thomas and Lucille Sharpe prove not only dislikable antagonists, but villains without any heart or bearing of their own outside of the heavily redundant world against which they are cast. The film becomes an exercise in indulgence spurred on by del Toro’s decided love for all things creepy, though his attempts at recasting the haunted hills of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is well neigh suffocating in his persistent courtship of intellectual pretention. As the entire affair comes to a bloody head at the film’s conclusion, and Wasikowska’s Cushing character closes the book of her own writing on the events contained within the film proper, viewers may at least come away with the relief afforded by never having to glance at the flowery and pompous prose intimated by the film’s self-aggrandizing majesty.

Which is all not to say that the film doesn’t still have its moments, or that del Toro has completely lost his touch as an inherently hyperbolic filmmaker. Like Pacific Rim, the director’s latest builds upon pre-established and well known storytelling traditions while incorporating his own unimpeachable aesthetic vision. The Sharpe estate in his new film is gloriously macabre, with his dilapidated structure, groaning, mechanized structural bearings, and oozing floors threatening to be over taken by the red clay that becomes visually associated with the crimson ghouls that haunt the ancestral abode with menace and woe. Edith is an appropriate avatar by which to navigate the films labyrinthine, maze-like structure so well known to fans of del Toro’s larger oeuvre, and the very construction of his latest cinematic set piece is reminiscent of the many winding gears and widgets of his directorial debut Cronos, only to be recast and seen again later on in Hellboy II: The Golden Army and Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s always a pleasure to get to know the inner workings of behind the tapestries that adorn del Toro’s films, even if the fabric quickly gives way to a skeletal frame in dire need of expositional support.

The film’s cast at times appear aware of the del Toro’s many excesses and illusory sparks of innovation that ultimately give way to a barren cellar of discarded and recycled tropes and images from greater works on the page and screen from the past. At times Hiddleston’s limber frame and hints towards a predatory menace necessitated by a wounded humanity resulting from his own loss of innocence, though in extrapolation on the Thomas Sharpe character it is in his sister Lucille where much of the film’s horror arises, and to lesser reward. In moving so quickly between too many literary and cinematic allusions to count, del Toro makes a mockery of his own sycophantic appreciation of his own artistry, his gothic romance a macabre farce in disguise. The estate from which the film derives its name is an effectively eerie setting that becomes undone by the film’s many surrounding elements, all jockeying for their time in front of a camera that moves far too frenetically between its many points of reference. On that note, it becomes possible to leave the would-be Victorian novelist, Ms. Edith Cushing, to ponder over her own shallow pool of narrative recursion between the covers of a book that may be closed by the film’s viewers indefinitely.

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