Since it’s October, I’ve been watching some scary movies. I admit it – I don’t typically like horror. But a lot of period dramas in the horror category are more gothic than outright terrifying so I thought I’d give them a shot. Crimson Peak is a gothic romance I’ve been meaning to watch for a while and now that I’ve seen it I can share my thoughts on it. Beware of minor spoilers.
Set in 1887 and 1901, Crimson Peak is about American heiress Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) and her struggle with life, death, and the past. When Edith is 10 years old her mother dies. Not long after, her mother’s ghost visits her and brings with her a dire warning, “Beware of Crimson Peak.” Fourteen years pass and Edith lives a comfortable life with her father as part of New York society. But Edith yearns for more, and she dreams of becoming a writer. Her life changes when she meets Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lady Lucille (Jessica Lucille), two mysterious aristocrats who have come to America to secure financing for Thomas’ invention. As Edith’s feelings for Thomas grow, dark forces threaten to destroy her, and she must solve the mystery of Crimson Peak before it’s too late.
I liked Edith for a lot of reasons. Despite tragedy in her life, and being literally haunted by the past, she’s optimistic and brave. She’s also witty and clever. When the mother of a childhood friend cruelly suggests that Edith will die a spinster like Jane Austen, Edith quips “Actually, I’d rather be Mary Shelly; she died a widow.” Edith, like a lot of historical heroines is constantly underestimated. Mia Wasikowska is wonderful as Edith. Her performances tend to be subtle which sometimes means she comes across as cold and passionless. But she’s warm and full of life in Crimson Peak. She’s subtle but she does a great job of showing how spirited and brave Edith is.
Which contrasts nicely with what Jessica Chastain does as Lucille. Jessica is one of my favorite actresses so I’ll watch her in anything. Unlike Edith, Lucille is cold and impenetrable. There’s something unsettling about her presence as she blends into the dark background. Even though she isn’t the lead, Lucille is probably the most interesting character because she has the biggest arc in the film. Lucille’s brother, Thomas Sharpe is nothing like her. He’s more affable, charming, even theatrical, and like Edith, he’s a dreamer. If it weren’t for the fact that Sir Thomas was in a gothic romance movie I wouldn’t have been at all suspicious of him. Yet, something strange happens when Lucille and Thomas are in a room together – suddenly, Sir Thomas seems a little bit less affable and charming.
The best thing about Crimson Peak were all the technical things, which I expected since Guillermo Del Toro is the director. The Victorian era costumes are gorgeous. Edith wears bright colors – golden yellow, cream, and white. The clothes she brings to Allerdale Hall, a manor that’s decaying, give her a youthful, fresh appearance. She’s like the ray of light that everyone is drawn to. Lucille’s costumes are darker and more dramatic. Her heavy gowns are dark blue, crimson, and black. Lucille’s old gowns are from the 1880s in contrast to the much more practical, wearable outfits that a modern early 20th century woman like Edith wears.
The color palette of the film is beautiful. New York is bathed in golden light, while Allerdale Hall, the Sharpe residence in England, is overwhelmed by the three basic colors of a fairy tale – black, white, and red. The set design for the old house is the standout of the film. Allerdale is striking, gorgeous in its ugliness. It’s a rotting maze of rooms and winding staircases. A hole in the roof lets in cold wind and snow falls through the manor. Allerdale is sinking into the red clay beneath, and the house creaks and groans under the weight of its own past. The set was built specifically for the film and the long, dark corridors, almost sagging ceiling, and oversized furniture make look like the walls are closing in.
The problem I had with Crimson Peak is that it’s predictable and not very subtle. When Edith writes a ghost story, she tells the editor reading it, that the ghost represents the past. On another occasion Edith spends time with the Sharpes in the park and Lucille talks about the beautiful yellow butterflies in New York that are so different from the formidable black moths in England that thrive on cold darkness. None of this is subtle. There also aren’t very many surprises in the film, though that might have been my own modern expectation. Crimson Peak is a throwback to old fashioned gothic romances so it isn’t meant to subvert anything, but I still can’t help feeling like something is missing.
Crimson Peak is more a dark, twisted fairy tale than a horror movie. It’s slightly campy and the last act is melodramatic. However, if you’re squeamish or like me, detest horror films, you might end up loving its gothic, romantic elements. I’d give it a B-.