24-year-old Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) wants nothing more than to be published, but as a single woman and aspiring writer living in the late-19th century she finds it difficult to be taken seriously. When her work is written off as a ghost story, she is quick to correct that it is a story with ghosts in it; the supernatural elements merely serve as a metaphor for loss, betrayal and broken dreams. This same sentiment accurately describes the gushingly gorgeous "Crimson Peak," writer-director Guillermo del Toro's (2013's "Pacific Rim
") phantasmagoric gothic romance. Co-penned by Matthew Robbins (2011's "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
"), the film's spectral visitations bring ominous window-dressing and haunting suggestion to a plot where the gravest horrors are committed by the still very much living and breathing.
When her beloved father (Jim Beaver) meets a grisly end, Edith is stripped of the last loved one of her known bloodline. In her grief, she is comforted by new suitor Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a down-on-his-luck baronet who welcomes her to come stay with him and elder sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) at their late family's decaying British estate Allerdale Hall. The ornate mansion has long fallen into disrepairthe floors and ceilings are eroding as the structure slowly sinks into the deep-red stone of the earthbut Thomas and Lucille are emotionally tied to the place, adamant about wanting to remain where their late parents once walked. As the paranormally sensitive Edith will soon discover, Lady Sharpe (Doug Jones) is still roaming around, the mysterious circumstances of her death trapping her on the infertile grounds.
"Crimson Peak" is a resplendently mounted thriller, old-fashioned in spirit and decked with lavish production values. The story isn't terribly original, and the secret at the heart of the picture can be easily guessed, but this is a film to positively drink in with abandon. Tech work is exceptional, the setting of Allerdale Hale a prominent, living figure ornamented with a level of detail rarely seen on the screen. The grand foyer of the home, a light flurry of autumn leaves and winter snow forever falling from the dilapidated ceiling, sets the vivid mood for all the shadowy corridors, musty rooms and dank stairways to follow. Thomas E. Sanders' (2013's "After Earth
") production design is impressive to a revelatory degree, as is Brandt Gordon's (2012's "Total Recall
") richly vintage art direction, Fernando Velazquez's (2014's "Hercules
") exquisitely atmospheric orchestrations, and Dan Laustsen's (2012's "The Possession
") beautifully ominous cinematography. The computer-generated effects work bringing the apparitions to life is the movie's one lesser contribution; it isn't that they aren't ghoulishly attractive on their own, but the obviousness of the CG keeps them from providing the palpable, skin-crawling chills for which del Toro is aiming.
Director Guillermo del Toro takes his time getting to know heroine Ediththe losses in her life, her professional aspirations, her struggle for gender equalityensuring she is a strong-willed, take-charge character before watching as she makes a dangerous, life-altering decision. In his development of characters and in his deliberate, intoxicating pacing, the filmmaker's trust in his own material is readily apparent. Mia Wasikowska (2014's "The Double
") is a captivating, unassuming Edith, bringing humble nobility, independence and vulnerability to her role. When push comes to shove, she can fight her own battles, and this journey toward coming into her own creates an affecting, unforced arc for her.
As new husband Thomas Sharpe, Tom Hiddleston (2014's "Only Lovers Left Alive
") has a tricky role, portraying a potential heavy while silently expressing a genuine love for Edith. The viewer is right to question his motives, but there is a provocative gray area when it comes to this intentions. Of the four leads, Charlie Hunnam (who previously starred in del Toro's "Pacific Rim
") is given the relatively thankless part as Edith's handsome physician friend Dr. Alan McMichael, yet the actor is so naturally compelling it almost doesn't matter. In a cast as uniformly reliable as this one, it is Jessica Chastain (2015's "The Martian
") who steals the show as the evasive Lucille, her fleeting moments of warmth shielding a calculating, possessive, psychologically thorny dark side. Chastain claws into her juicy role, knowing when to go big and when to quietly reel backa scene where she scrapes a silver spoon on the china while feeding Edith porridge is truly disquietingwithout ever falling into camp. All that one really needs to know about Lucille is epitomized in an early moment where she nonchalantly feeds a butterfly to an army of ants, but Chastain fills her out to be so much more than a two-dimensional villainess.
In a prologue, Edith's 10-year-old self (Sofia Wells) is visited by her mother's ghost, who warns, "When the time comes, beware of Crimson Peak." She does not yet know what or where this place is she speaks, but will by film's end. "Crimson Peak" escalates with tension as the third act rounds the curve, culminating in a riveting, break-neck showdown proving once and for all the female characters of Edith and Lucille are the most dynamic of the group. They are capable of taking care of themselves, thanks very much. For a motion picture where decaying, moaning spirits come knockingone set-piece involving a bathtub is highly reminiscent of a similar scene in 1980's "The Shining
"it is the human conflict that intrigues the most, demanding one to continue turning each new lush, sinister cinematic page. "Crimson Peak" is classically confident, aesthetically arresting moviemaking.