Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam
US theatrical: 13 Nov 2015 (General release)
“She’s our very own Jane Austen,” coos Mrs. McMichael (Leslie Hope), adding that she “died a spinster”. It’s 1901, and she and her marrying-age daughter have stopped on a staircase landing, where they gaze on the phenomenally named Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), known within their small Buffalo, New York community as an aspiring writer. Clutching a manuscript she does indeed hope to have published, Edith explains that, actually, her model is “Mary Shelley, who died a widow.”
Hooray for confident, creative young ladies. As Edith makes her way past the harrumphing Mrs. McMichael at the start of Crimson Peak, you’re ready to root for her. If her own feisty spirit isn’t enough, you see that she’s also encouraged, so courteously, by Mrs. McMichael’s handsome doctor son, Alan (Charlie Hunnam), who is observing the proceedings as you are. Alas, when she does meet with Mr. Ogilvie (Jonathan Hyde), her would-be publisher, Edith runs into just the obstruction you expect: though her handwriting is “nice”, her story is missing a romance. What’s she doing writing about ghosts, anyway?
You know what she’s doing. Just a few minutes before, Edith has told you in voiceover she believes in ghosts (“I know they’re real”), owing to a visit by her mother’s ghost (a black wraithlike thingy played by Doug Jones) when she was just ten years old (and played by Sofia Wells). Now, 24-year-old Edith assuages Mr. Ogilvie, the ghost in her novel isn’t just the focus of a scary story, but instead, “a metaphor for the past”.
If the “old-fashioned” Ogilvie doesn’t understand, you get it exactly, just as you do every other metaphor and cliché that shows up in Guillermo del Toro’s Gothic melodrama. Like his Pan’s Labyrinth, the new movie charts the journey of a plucky heroine, frightened by floaty spirits, but more seriously threatened by evils that, if not precisely mundane, are all too fleshbound. Composed and courageous as a child, curious and determined as an adult, Edith adores her father, Carter (Jim Beaver), a burly, witty self-made man who dotes on her in return.
Father and daughter respect one another’s resilience and independence, at least until dad, who’s fond of Alan, announces he “doesn’t like” a new suitor for his daughter. Thomas (Tom Hiddleston), a self-announced baronet, appears as if out of nowhere, then proceeds to romance Edith even as he seeks Carter’s funding for a machine he’s designed, in hopes of extracting clay from beneath his inherited estate back in Cumberland, England. This clay is blood red, and its watery substance seeps through basement walls and up through the powdery white snow during winter, clues that you’ll be sure to note when Edith (inevitably) makes her way to England as Thomas’ new bride—despite her father’s objections and owing to an especially bloody trauma.
Once removed from America, Edith finds herself living amidst a host of metaphors made increasingly literal. These include a vast hole in the front hall’s ceiling, through which float dead leaves and swirls of snow. Blood red clay water drips down walls, and there are more ghosts, of course, appearing to her but not Thomas and not his darkly possessive, sharp-edged sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain).
Repeatedly unnerving, Lucille is fond of playing the piano, poking at dead insects, and serving decidedly sinister tea on a tray. If Lucille’s affect during her delivery isn’t enough to make you worry (“Drink your tea, it’ll warm you!”), the several tight frames of china cups and pots will surely let you know what Edith should see but somehow does not: apparently she hasn’t read her Mary Shelley so closely as he might have.
That said, Edith plays the part of the anxious naïf energetically. While she’s open to commune with the ghosts who swirl and chatter and creak around her, she’s prone to wearing gauzy white gowns, to let her blond hair loose, to take the bath she’s instructed to take even when the water is crimson when it first spurts from the tap. If she’s disappointed by Thomas’ lack of sexual interest in her, she’s willing to wait, imagining, as Lucille suggests, that he’s only being polite.
Once she starts discovering locked trunks and wax cylinder recordings—because whoever is doing the wrong that’s so plainly being done can’t help but leave behind all manner of evidence—Edith begins to wonder whether she’s made a mistake marrying Thomas and cutting herself from all she knew back home, while also ensuring that her inheritance is moved to Thomas’ account.
Granted, she’s helped toward such questions by Thomas himself: “Why did I bring you here?” he muses one afternoon, “Who did you marry?” Ah well, she muses back, “You’re all that I have left.” And so she stays, waking each night to ghosts’ noises and lonely explorations down long windy hallways, ornate candelabra in hand. The candles provide precious little light, but the way is well marked by the movie’s many metaphors, the horrifying portraits, the dying bees, the eager doggie with the red ball.
Crimson Peak knows you know what it’s doing. As you watch Edith wandering those endless hallways, you expect the monsters, and also the nasty betrayals and the violence, brutal and penetrating. As Edith comes to understand her own story, you might appreciate not only the metaphors, but also the very nice handwriting.