Review: ‘Crimson Peak’ is an opulent misstep for Guillermo del Toro

Proof that Jessica Chastain isn't always the best choice even if she should be
Jessica Chastain in 'Crimson Peak'

If you’re hoping that the Guillermo del Toro who tantalized moviegoers and cinephiles with his Oscar-winning 2006 fantasy “Pan’s Labyrinth” is making a comeback with his latest feature, “Crimson Peak,” you’ll be sorely disappointed.  After spending almost a decade working on franchise films like “Hellboy” and “Pacific Rim” del Toro is unleashing what he regards as an original “gothic romance.”  Sadly, despite promises of glorious sets and what should be an impressive cast it simply doesn’t work.

Del Toro’s tale begins in, of all places, Buffalo, New York in the late 1800’s.   Young Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is a struggling writer of ghost stories who lives with her industrialist father Carter Cushing (a miscast Jim Beaver).  Seemingly too smart to succumb to the obvious charms of her good friend Dr. Alan Michael (Charlie Hunnam), Edith’s has a dark secret she’s kept from both men.  She’s spent most of her life haunted by the spirit of her dead mother who continually warns her to stay away from a mysterious locale she’s never heard of called “Crimson Peak.”

The Crushing’s lives take a turn with the arrival of Thomas and Lucille Sharp (Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain), a pair of attractive siblings scouring the United States attempting to secure funding to mine the family’s red clay reserves in their native England.  The Sharps immediately charm the less cosmopolitan elite of Buffalo, but Carter and his partners are smart enough to realize that Thomas’ investment has too many risks to seriously pursue.  He also believes something isn’t quite right between brother and sister, a pair who are so incredibly desperate to mine the family plot that they’ve continued to travel all over the world hawking Thomas’ business opportunity despite little interest.   Not so shockingly, Carter soon “slips” while shaving at the local Men’s Club and ends up killing himself.  Thomas, meanwhile, has seduced Edith just enough that she races into his arms after the death of her only remaining family member (how convenient).  And, much to Alan’s suspicious chagrin, she’s soon traveling across the Atlantic to start a new life with Thomas at their beautiful family home.  An estate known as…

…Crimson Peak.

Yes, Edith somehow doesn’t become aware of the name of her new home – the same name her mother’s spirit has warned her about for years — until they are just miles away from settling in.  Del Toro’s screenplay is simply that obvious and on the nose.

Luckily, it doesn’t take Edith long to realize things are not what they seem between Thomas and Lucille (no subtlety here, the audience realized it from their first scene together).  The film then strands the viewer wondering whether Alan will make it across the Atlantic in time to save Edith or whether she’ll figure out a way to escape the clutches of her new husband and his strange sister on her own.

There are few other minor plotlines and character justifications, but “Crimson Peak” is basically a very simple story surrounded by ornate and over-the-top trappings with characters it’s hard to care for.  And, make no mistake del Toro has a vision of the notorious house that must have justified the film’s budget.  Production designer Thomas E. Sanders (“Saving Private Ryan,” “Dracula”) has built a huge mansion with all the gothic and period trimmings you could dream of.  The details are in every nook and cranny of every staircase and fireplace mantel.   The grand family home needs to live up to Thomas’ hype and Sanders and del Toro make sure it does.  Unfortunately, it also looks like an obvious Hollywood, or in this case, Toronto sound stage.  Perhaps it’s the massive hole in the ceiling that makes the idea anyone could survive the autumn living there let alone the winter is hard to believe.  Or, it may be because it simply looks like a movie set (from some angles it appears as though it’s a massive Broadway stage).  Truthfully, this wouldn’t be so jarring if all the scenes in Buffalo weren’t attempting to be especially accurate to the period.  Cinematographer Dan Lautsen, who last worked with del Toro on 1997’s “Mimic,” is also part of the problem. At times he composes and lights some beautiful images, but overall he struggles to make the film’s showcase set not look like said set.  The dots just didn’t connect with this crew.

The film’s other glaring issue is Del Toro simply can’t justify the film’s tone.  Despite studio marketing to the contrary, the filmaker has spoken out publicly about how “Peak” is a romance and not a horror movie.  That romance is hard to achieve when there doesn’t appear to be any true chemistry between either Wasikowska and Hiddleston (or Wasikowska and Hunnam for that matter) on screen.  Moreover, during the film’s finale something so utterly grotesque happens to Hiddleston’s character that is not only pointless, but completely out of place.

On paper you couldn’t ask for a more intriguing cast, but, again, that’s on paper.  The good news is that Wasikowska is doing her best as Edith and bizarrely escapes the film unscathed. She realizes the film is slightly mannered and finds a way to make you mildly care about Edith’s fate.  Hiddleston also seems to understand what del Toro is going for, but is strangely unable to bring any of the charisma he’s displayed in his previous roles to Thomas (at some points you just wish he’d slip into his most recognizable character, Marvel’s Loki).  That just reiterates how hard it is to believe Edith would leave her life in America for this creepy, bloody world.  As for Hunnam, del Toro’s “Pacific Rim” star seems as though he’s in a completely different movie and Chastain?  That’s the most disheartening performance to discuss of them all.

The two-time Academy Award nominee is a phenomenal talent.  She has an ability to ground her characters in a way that few of her peers can match. When she attempts to bring truth to Lucille, however, is where it goes slightly off the rails.  The entire scene in question, which involves Hiddleston and was mentioned in an earlier paragraph, is a big problem.  It’s a climactic moment between Thomas and Lucille where Chastain attempts to convey Lucille’s deep pain and emotions to the audience.  Frankly, it’s not her best moment.  Most of the blame is in del Toro’s hands because the director is too experienced to somehow not realize how Chastain’s performance here would feel completely out of place in the context of the rest of the movie.

As for the rest of the production, Kate Hawley’s costumes are exquisite even if they have to fight for attention alongside the movie’s gigantic Crimson Peak set.   Fernando Velázquez’s original score has a few impressive moments and the movie’s rich makeup and hair department clearly brought their A-game.

Del Toro has remarked that his next movie is going to be smaller than his recent efforts and that can only be a good thing.  It’s hard to imagine the man who made “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Labyrinth” being happy with a future self who let “Peak” turn into such a bloated endeavor. There can be little doubt that at one time del Toro had a vision for a gothic romance that would have truly wowed audiences.  How it turned into this soulless endeavor will have us scratching our heads for years.

Grade: C

“Crimson Peak” opens nationwide on Friday.

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With over a decade of experience in the movie industry, Ellwood survived working for two major studios, has written for Variety, MSN and the LA Times and co-founded HitFix, Inc. serving as its first Editor-in-Chief and President. Ellwood spends his time relaxing hitting 3’s on the basketball court and following his beloved Clippers.

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