The latest film from Guillermo del Toro showcases his strengths and weaknesses.
In a career that stretches back to the mid-1980s, del Toro has carved out a distinctive niche as a Latin fantasist with a flair for fanboy fetishism. His best films — The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) — have married narratives that feel intensely personal with authentic characters who resonate culturally. Adorned with in gorgeous costumes, detailed makeup, and nightmarish settings, those films soared into the cinematic heavens.
Some of his films have followed more familiar, even formulaic patterns — Blade II, Hellboy, Hellboy II: The Golden Army — yet del Toro’s strong visual aesthetic and sense of propulsive action made them into compulsively watchable entertainments. More recently, however, Pacific Rim depicted a losing battle between del Toro’s fannish instincts and the need for a compelling story, independent of the outlandish graphic approach.
Once again, Crimson Peak is a delight for the eyes, but a vast disappointment for the heart and intellect. It is very much a gothic romance, rather than a straightforward period horror piece, with a great emphasis on family dischord and melodramatic behavior, set in snowy Buffalo, New York, early in the 20th century.
The movie begins as a love story with ulterior motives. Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is the only child of widowed and wealthy industrialist Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver). Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) arrives from Britain with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) to make a presentation about a new machine to Mr. Cushing and his company’s board but is immediately swatted down by Cushing, who suspects that Thomas’ smooth hands betray his lack of integrity.
Urged on by his sister, Thomas manages to meet and quickly romance Edith, who is seduced by his good looks and suave charm, incurring the wrathful disapproval of Mr. Cushing. When circumstances change, Thomas and Edith end up married and living with Lucille at the decrepit Sharpe family mansion in Cumberland, England. Thomas and Lucille clearly have their own agenda in mind, one that puts the innocent Edith’s future in doubt, though that’s kept mysterious as long as possible.
In the meantime … well, that’s one of the problems with the movie. Colloborating with writer Matthew Robbins for the third time, officially — after Mimic (1997) and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010) — del Toro has devised a framework that allows him and his production team to create a sumptuous environment that is wonderfully, darkly beautiful, its main setting a clever twist on a haunting house, its environs more vertical than horizontal, allowing the sky and the ground to bleed into it.
Settings are not characters, however, and del Toro and Robbins have placed unbelievably starchy people in the leads. Thomas, Edith, and Lucille never come to life; they’re more like Victorian-Era stiffs than breathing human beings. It’s as though del Toro, Robbins, and the actors decided to be content with approximations rather than scratch away their exteriors. Likewise with the story, which faithfully follows an archaic narrative that lacks any surprises, new insights or refreshing perspectives.
That leaves Crimson Peak as a fitfully involving drama that lacks any trace of romance, mystery, or (true) melodrama. Nothing churns; the surface always remains placid as the movie marches gracefully toward its climax.
The film opens on Friday, October 16, at theaters throughout Dallas.