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.
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.
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.