Directed by: Guillermo del Torro
Written by: del Torro and Matthew Robbins
Monster vs man: that’s the recurring motif in Guillermo del Torro’s films. Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water are set during the Spanish civil war and early-cold war respectively. Both feature literal monsters that at times can be scary, but both films make plain that their real villains are fascists and conservative-militarists respectively. Between those two films del Torro came out with Crimson Peak. Set in late 19th century America and England, the film is consistent with del Torro’s tendency to attack right-wing ideologies. This time, however, the ideology is as old-fashioned as the film’s setting. The ideology is British arastocracism.
Crimson Peak is a mildly amusing watch in 2020, in that it shares a plot theming device with the recently released Little Women. Its protagonist, Edith (Mia Wasikowska), is a young American woman with the literary talents to impress publishers, who is nonetheless blocked from getting published by their sexism. Edith is told that a quasi-ghost story she has written might be publishable if she adds a romantic element, but she promptly dismisses the proposal as sexist.
Edith’s sense of direction is promptly complicated by the arrival of Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an English aristocrat, who hopes that Edith’s father Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver) will invest in his clay mining technology. While Edith takes a liking to Thomas, her father is quick to quell his ambitions. He refuses to offer him money arguing that Thomas is a lazy son of privilege, whereas he (Cushing) has earned his wealth.
Despite having a constant air of horror, and some memorable bursts of color, Crimson Peak struck me as a bit underwhelming for much of its middle. Carter’s telling off of Thomas seemed to settle the film’s moral message once and for all (a message conveyed, unfortunately, from an uncritical-capitalist perspective). Another key point, established a bit too early in the script for my taste, is that Thomas’s sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), is morbid to say the least. Lucille is established in a scene in wish she glibly tells Edith about the death of butterflies, all the while a close-up depicts a dying butterfly being ripped apart by ants. In short, much of Crimson Peak is spent with the audience already knowing that Thomas and Lucille are corrupted by their inherited positions, and that Lucille may be particularly sinister. Subsequently, the audience is left with the dull experience of waiting for these apparent truths to explicitly reveal themselves and add up to something.
Luckily, there is more to Crimson Peak than meets the eye. There is some element of twist in the film’s third act and the film ends up making somewhat unpredictable observations about both aristocracy and the plasticity of love stories. Ultimately Crimson Peak proved a memorable movie, but the memorable was too little, too late to render the work overall entertaining. One weakness, I suppose, is that the film lacked del Torro’s signature (literal) monsters: they’re there, but not frequently, and certainly not to the degree necessary to register as characters. The film’s problems, however, go beyond the absence of charismatic monsters. Its real problem is the presence of blasé people.
One thing I’ve struggled with in reading English classics over the years is parsing what exactly is so attractive about their leading men. Mr. Darcy, Captain Wentsworth and Mr. Rochester all struck me as just rich men whose names got repeated a lot: yet in their respective stories they count as real heartthrobs. To del Torro and Matthew Robbins’s credit, they perfectly captured this dynamic in Thomas Sharpe. The character may be the one who pushes Edith away from her intellectualism-over-love lifestyle, but nothing he does on screen really rises above the standard of blandness.
Thomas’s blandness is to blame for the arguable overwriting of his sinister sister (his lack of charisma had to be made up for somewhere). It is also to blame for why the film’s middle feels lacking. Most importantly, however, it is what prevents the film’s twist from truly tying the work together. Thomas proves a complicated character, and the subject of what is perhaps del Torro’s most tragic and nuanced exploration of reactionary power structures. Crimson Peak’s structure ,unfortunately, makes his character development seem less like an arc and more like a list of bullet points; a list that’s quite repetitive prior to its conclusion.
While Pan’s Labyrinth spoke to an evil characterized by an acting body: a military force, Crimson Peak went for a target that wasn’t exactly moving. In fact that is its point: that aristocrats are hauntingly trapped in the past. The disturbing stagnancy of aristocratic culture might very well make for a good cinematic theme, but one has to be careful that one’s own film doesn’t take on that stagnancy itself.