22 October 2015

Crimson Peak review

Part Gothic romance, part supernatural horror and part Downton Abbey-esque period drama, Crimson Peak isn't an easy film to classify beyond "it's a Guillermo Del Toro film". Set around the turn of the 20th century, we follow Edith Cushing, aspiring writer and daughter of a wealthy American businessman as she is introduced to and falls in love with Sir Thomas Sharpe, an English Baronet who is desperately in need of funding to better extract the valuable red clay that resides under his family home, the dilapidated Allerdale Hall. The two of them are soon married, and Edith accompanies her husband back to England with his sister, Lucille Sharpe, to live in Allerdale Hall.

Crimson Peak is as much the story of Allerdale Hall as it is the story of Edith. The house breathes, according to Sir Thomas Sharpe, and he's right - a combination of incredible set design and gorgeous cinematography make Allerdale Hall as much of a character as any of the people in Crimson Peak, the most immersive, real and vividly memorable location I have ever seen in a film. The mansion oozes atmosphere, the thick blood red clay coming up through the floorboards as pearl white snow drifts down from the broken roof, black moths covering the cracked walls as the flicker of candlelight make the shadows dance. It's the ultimate haunted house bought to life on screen, unsettling and creepy and utterly mesmerising - just like the Sharpe siblings who reside in it.

Tom Hiddleston is (naturally) charming as Sir Thomas Sharpe, but it is Jessica Chastain's performance as Lucille Sharpe that blew me away. If Sir Thomas is the grandeur but damaged exterior of Allerdale Hall then Lucille is the dark, dangerous and decaying interior - barely managing to conceal her hatred for Edith and constantly on the very edge of uncontrollable rage, her intimidating presence is felt whenever she enters a scene and remains for a long time after she has left it. She acts as a direct counter-point to Edith in a lot of ways, from general personality to motivations to clothing choices - an unfortunate side effect of this being that Edith isn't anywhere near as interesting a character, as her main personality trait seems to be that she is 'nice'. Mia Wasikowska (who plays Edith) does what she can with the character, but there simply isn't much there for her to work with after the opening act and Edith ends up slowing down the story maybe a little too much for some people.

Some have referred to Crimson Peak's mix of genres as muddled - unfairly, in my eyes, as Crimson Peak does an excellent job of taking all these influences and forming a cohesive whole. Almost ironically, despite being one of the most unique cinema experiences I have ever had, nothing about the story is particularly original thanks to the way that Crimson Peak borrows heavily from the genres it plays in - but the way that the film uses these recognisable concepts is original. Crimson Peak enjoys blatantly signposting when it is setting up a clich├ęd moment or playing with a trope before either committing to it with a straight face or subverting it completely, and not knowing which path Crimson Peak is about to take is a lot of fun - I was grinning like an idiot for much of the films run time thanks to the sense of playfulness that this creates.

And just in case it isn't obvious enough from the promotional material or the fact that it is a Guillermo Del Toro film, Crimson Peak is probably the best looking film released in a year full of great looking films - there isn't a shot that I wouldn't want to hang on my wall, and the films use of colour and lighting is simply incredible, as is the way in which many of the more grandiose shots are framed. I also need to mention how great the design of the ghosts are - fading in and out of corporeal form and still marked by the wounds that killed them, they are at once haunting and magnificent, terrifying when the film calls for it but strangely reassuring if not.

Those going in expecting a pure horror film are almost certainly going to leave disappointed thanks to the jump scares being few and far between, but those who haven't seen the misleading marketing (or have paid attention to Guillermo Del Toro when he repeatedly stated that Crimson Peak is not a horror film) are far more likely to find themselves enjoying an atmospheric,
exquisitely crafted, sumptuous, engaging and completely earnest love letter to Gothic fiction. As Edith says towards the start of the film, "This isn't a ghost story, it's a story with ghosts in it" - and it's a story well worth your time.

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