Gothic Loses The Plot
It should have been a shoo-in for Guillermo del Toro, the director of gothic films like ‘The Devil’s Backbone’ and ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’. An American-language big budget stab at High Gothick, complete with fleeing heroine, dastardly baronet and crumbling mansion – but somehow ‘Crimson Peak’ goes terribly wrong.
All the elements are in place, including sumptuous production design that makes the titular house feel real, but where there is need for subtlety and restraint we get swathes of bombastic CGI and the red stuff – the red stuff not being blood but liquid crimson clay that bubbles up through the floor staining everything in a metaphor that doesn’t so much work its way into your mind as hit you over the head with a shovel (which is exactly what happens to one of the characters). Someone even stops to explain metaphors for us.
Elements of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca have been mixed with Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto, so that heroine Mia Wasikowska is cruelly deceived by sinister suitor Tom Hiddleston dressed in black from head to toe, in case we miss the point, and Jessica Chastain plays his sister, gliding from grand piano to ruined hallway with a bunch of keys rattling at her waist. But at times this tale of sinister penniless nobles out to send the heroine hurtling around an old house in hysteria also plays out more like a cross between ‘East Lynne’ and ‘Thirteen Ghosts’.
When Wasikowska marries Hiddleston and heads for his country seat she should know things will go bad, as he’s all but cackling and tweaking his moustaches from the outset, while his sister stares so hard at Mia that she virtually explodes bricks. The film announces its long-game from the very outset as Chastain forces cups of tea on poor Mia that are obviously making her weaker. It doesn’t help that del Toro’s love of visualising monsters makes him pack every frame with computer-rendered creatures that leap from floors and cupboards with deafening soundtrack stings every five minutes. Even when there’s a lull from these phantoms, fluttering moths cover every square inch of the house until you wonder why Mia’s outrageous gowns aren’t covered in holes.
With the good and evil characters labelled right from the outset there’s nowhere for the story to go. Del Toro’s great strength is in his meticulous visuals, many of which are astounding (a hole in the roof that allows in dead leaves and snow is particularly beautiful), but his writing is weak and at times hilariously cliched. When Chastain reveals a painting of her mother the whole audience burst out laughing – the portrait is pure Scooby Doo. If you’re going to successfully hoodwink a heroine, it’s probably a good idea not to harp on about everything dying that comes to Crimson Peak.
I thought that perhaps the whole thing was meant to be a send-up or a ‘Goosebumps’-style version of gothic for kids, but the lingering shots of violence suggest otherwise. The problem, I fear, is that del Toro’s style has become coarsened and cartoonish when the film needed haunting grace.