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‘Crimson Peak’ A Great-Looking Misfire

I am such an admirer of Guillermo del Toro that I want his films to be as great as he is. But just as del Toro values honesty in his relationship with his filmmaking compadres Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu, I have to be straightforward in evaluating Crimson Peak: it’s a disappointment.

On the plus side, the film is a feast for the eyes. Thomas E. Sanders’ production design and Kate Hawley’s costumes are sumptuous beyond description. Obviously they and their collaborators took their cues from del Toro, whose visual imagination is without rival. This gothic ghost story/ romance offers a broad canvas, from the interior of a Victorian home to a crumbling mansion in the English countryside. Every shot in Crimson Peakwould be worthy of a page in a handsome coffee-table book.

Jessica Chastain-Crimson Peak-680

Courtesy of Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures

Nor can I fault the actors. Mia Wasikowska plays a proto-feminist who believes in ghosts—with good reason—but has no interest in romance until she falls under the spell of a dashing Englishman (Tom Hiddleston). He has come to Buffalo, New York to persuade her father (Jim Beaver) to invest in his mining machine, with his eerie-looking sister (Jessica Chastain) in tow. Beaver doesn’t like the looks of them from day one. Indeed, their history is a bizarre one that plays out as our heroine journeys to their home in England.

The performances are excellent: the always-watchable Wasikowska is perfectly cast as an independent minded young woman. What’s more, she looks radiantly beautiful:  elegantly coiffed, gowned, and photographed. Her infatuation with Hiddleston is equally credible; he effortlessly oozes charm but also reveals a conflicted conscience. Beaver is exceptionally good as Wasikowska’s prosperous, loving father. Chastain is the only performer who suffers, forced to play a heavy-handed character with little if any nuance in her evil makeup.

With a funeral as the opening scene and creepy goings-on throughout the narrative, del Toro repeatedly challenges us to figure out how all of this adds up, and why Wasikowska has been chosen to encounter the spectral figures that haunt her both here and in England.

Mia Wasikowska-Crimson Peak-485

Courtesy of Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures

But as the film goes on, the constant teases—without resolution—grow tiresome, and when the answers are revealed they are less than earth-shattering. Del Toro is famous for writing and drawing ideas as they occur to him in his notebooks, and finding the ideal outlets for them in his films, sometimes years after he devised them. But those individual images and moments don’t add up to a solid screenplay. (The script is credited to the director and Matthew Robbins, who formerly collaborated on Mimic and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.)

 

Guillermo del Toro would be the first one to say that storytelling is the primary job of a filmmaker. He has shown his brilliance in Pan’s Labyrinthand the less-recognized but equally compelling The Devil’s Backbone. Sorry to say, Crimson Peak is not in their league.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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