Oh, Guillermo, Guillermo, whate’er has become of you? Perhaps Pan’s Labyrinth, with its resounding critical acclaim, was del Toro’s creative (rather than crimson) peak, and he decided he didn’t need to strive so manfully any more. Or perhaps the debacle of bumping himself off The Hobbit knocked the wind out of his sails, so struggling to regain his previous form after all that lost time. Whatever the root of his malaise, del Toro’s most recent two pictures have been disappointments, ones unfortunately redolent of his early Hollywood ordeal Mimic. They’re examples of well-made emptiness rather than rich with texture and resonance. Crimson Peak is better than Pacific Rim, but that’s more down to performance than screenplay, and del Toro must take (at least half of) the blame in both instances.
He co-wrote Peak with Matthew Robbins, a contemporary of the Hollywood movie brats whose best known and most ignominious directorial credit is the sub-Spielberg slop *batteries not included. Crimson Peak couldn’t be accused of falling into schmaltz, far from it, but it continually overplays its hand in a manner del Toro might argue is merely representative of the tropes of gothic romance (a genre he was continually at pains to state it belonged to, rather than horror, putting the picture’s financial failure at the door of what he saw as misleading marketing, which conveniently skirts its more fundamental shortcomings). Really, it just highlights a certain crudity of plot and characterisation that will come as a shock to anyone only familiar with the nuance of his Spanish language outings.
“The ghost is just a metaphor, for the past” announces Mia Wasikowska’s budding writer, and the subsequent movie becomes a barrage of too self-conscious displays of fictioneering, as del Toro sets out his stall of text and genre within the text and genre itself. He runs through the expected compendium of precisely devised patent del Toro gadgets, and clumsily attempts to evoke era by dropping in references to Conan Doyle, spirit photography, and assorted over-elaborate anecdotes and factoids that call this out as otherwise unanchored in time and period.
I mentioned the Peak in my Carol review, as del Toro is going for something similar to Hitchcock and Scorsese in his emphasis on touch and sensation, but he ends up nose-diving into unhinged melodrama and tonally excessive Grand Guignol (the skull-splitting in a men’s room). It’s over-studied, and unconvincing in its lavishness. You can see what he’s trying for, but there’s emptiness at Crimson Peak’s core.
One only has to compare it to the archetype of motion picture gothic romance, Rebecca, where the house is imbued with a sense of character no veneer of modern production design can muster, where there’s a genuine sense of the uncanny and a haunting atmosphere the actual spooks in Peak can’t begin to match, and where the characters betray palpable passions, fears and simmering emotions that render del Toro’s cock-riding and incestuous liaisons flagrantly attention-seeking.
And yet, del Toro has assembled three-quarters of a fine cast. In the principal roles, as the mysterious siblings who lure Edith Cushing (I know; alas, Cushing is about as understated a nod as this gets) to the unreal edifice, are Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain, as Thomas and Lucille Sharpe. Or, more accurately, Mia Wasikowska is playing Mrs de Winter, Hiddleston is Maxim, and Chastain illustrates a particularly berserk incarnation of Mrs Danvers, with Allerdale Hall substituting for Manderlay.
The secrets, over-exerted, are much less effective, and thus so are the characters. While the trio of leads are top-notch performers, they’re left inhabiting caricatures. Edith seems to do what she does purely because she’s a piece on del Toro’s chess table, while Thomas is suitably raffish but his essential unreadability never translates as intriguing. Lucille, meanwhile, is plain insane, and Chastain is clearly having absurdly camp fun, particularly when it comes to running around, stabbing and slicing willy-nilly, in the blood-spurting third act, but the overriding effect is rather pedestrian, as if del Toro has missed the wood for the pastiche.
He’s even borrowing for the miscast Charlie Hunnam, as Edith’s forlorn suitor. McMichael is essentially Arbogast from Psycho, something evident as soon as he arrives in England to set the Sharpes to rights. Except del Toro and Robbins know we know this, and know Kubrick also copied Hitch with the similarly haunted mansion and Scatman Crothers’ doomed knight in shining armour in The Shining. So instead, McMichael survives, just about. Hunnam’s face is far too contemporary for this kind of fare, which is probably why he’s also been cluelessly given lead duties in The Lost City of Z and Knights of the Round Table: King Arthur.
Talking of clueless, I’m guessing del Toro will claim it was intentional that Allderdale Hall and its environs fail to look or feel remotely like England; after all, Manderlay was achieved entirely in Hollywood and the surrounding Californian countryside. Unfortunately, the decision leaves Peak further adrift, and with ghost designs we’re assured weren’t CG rendered, but look it thanks to post-production processes, the whole tends to the mechanically undemanding. Much has been made of the bodice-ripping sex scenes, but they aren’t anything all that eyebrow raising, unless you happen to be taking tea with the vicar while watching.
If I make it sound as if I didn’t enjoy the film, that’s not exactly the case; it’s just disappointing that a director so talented should make something so middling for the second time in a row. Crimson Peak ought to have played a blinder. It can be a bad sign when a filmmaker opts to up the ante of bloodshed, no matter how much he may adore it anyway, because it may be in service of hiding a story that isn’t working. The picture’s third act is really little more than an elaborate display of dismemberment and mutilation, which is all very well, but Guillermo can do so much more. And, to an impartial observer, it does make the movie read as horror rather than gothic romance.