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Josh Reviews Crimson Peak

A new film by Guillermo del Toro is always a source of great excitement for me.  Add to that the idea of Mr. del Toro, a master of horror and fantasy, involved in a haunted house movie?  Delicious.  Crimson Peak has not been successful at the box office, which is a shame because it is a great film, original, clever, gorgeously made, and with some wonderful performances, particularly by the lead trio of Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain.  While the film does not approach the quality of Mr. del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, it’s nonetheless a terrific film and a wonderful story.

Crimson Peak.cropped

Young Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) has been raised by her businessman/architect father after the death of her mother when she was just a girl.  Edith dreams of being a writer, but has thus far found only rejection.  Though she has a friendship with a handsome young physician (Charlie Hunnam), she finds herself wooed by a visiting British aristocrat, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who has come to America looking for Edith’s father to invest in his inventions.  But Sir Thomas and his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), are hiding a secret, one which will threaten Edith’s life when she joins Sir Thomas and Lucille back in their ancient mansion home, nicknamed Crimson Peak by the locals.

What I love most about the films of Guillermo del Toro is the way that each is an utterly original creation and a fully realized fantasy world.  Each film of Mr. del Toro’s is a peek (no pun intended) into an entirely original universe, with its own rules and unique characters and situations, into all of which Mr. del Toro digs deeply.  Each of his films benefits from an enormous amount of thought and care paid to the world-building of that particular story.  I love this feeling of stepping into a fully-realized universe of the film, one which exists beyond the boundaries of the particular story being told in that film.

Mr. del Toro is also a master at tying the fantastic elements of his stories to real, human characters, who are always the center of his films, no matter how wonderful the ghosts or monsters or other fantasy creations in the film are.  (As much as I enjoyed seeing Mr. del Toro operate with the first huge budget of his career with Pacific Rim, that film stumbled because it lacked Mr. del Toro’s usual sharp focus on character.)  Though Crimson Peak is also a decently-budgeted film (it is listed on-line at a budget of $55 million, which is a lot more money than many of Mr. del Toro’s earlier films but a tiny pittance compared to most big-budget blockbusters which could cost four or more times that amount), I am pleased that Mr. del Toro has returned to the style of film-making that he did so well with in his films like Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, and Pan’s Labyrinth.  This story, written by Mr. del Toro and Matthew Robbins, is terrific.  It is well-paced as the story builds and builds, weaving plot points and character beats into escalating suspense.

The film takes its sweet time to get to the haunted house at its center, something that quite surprised me about the film’s structure.  It’s not until the second half of the film that we get to see the titular Crimson Peak, the rotting, ancient edifice that is home to Sir Thomas and Lucille Sharpe.  But this works.  I adore the first half of the film, and I wouldn’t cut a minute.  That first half is essential in establishing all of the characters and their relationships, so that by the time poor Edith finally winds up at Allerdale Hall (the actual name of the crumbling mansion), we’re totally invested in her story.  But that first half of the film isn’t just a dry way to set up the dominoes that will topple in the film’s second half.  It’s a rich and fascinating yarn that is wonderfully engaging even though the supernatural stuff is kept on a very low boil.  That’s a key for this type of film.  Is the movie interesting even when there are no ghosts or ghouls on-screen?  For Crimson Peak I am pleased to say a resounding yes.

And then, when we do eventually get to the Crimson Peak (Allerdale Hall), Mr. del Toro does not disappoint.  The mansion is absolutely gorgeous, a breathtaking triumph of design.  Every cent of the film’s production budget is apparent on-screen.  I adore the look of the mansion, most particularly the sunlit section in the center of the foyer, in which we can see the pieces of particulate from the disintegrating roof high above constantly drifting down towards the foyer floor, a beautiful and horrifying reminder that this edifice is literally collapsing around the characters’ eyes.

I’ve enjoyed Mia Masikowska’s work in many films before.  (She’s often felt better than the films in which she appeared, most notably Tim Burton’s horrendous Alice in Wonderland.)  But although I was familiar with her work, I found her to be a revelation here.  She is staggeringly beautiful, and she has evolved into a wonderful actress, on whose shoulders the film easily rests.  She is terrific as Edith, able to perfectly capture her innocence, her intelligence, and her strength.  Ms. Wasikowska is in almost every scene of the film, and she effortlessly carries the story.

Equally as impressive, if not more so, is Tom Hiddleston as Sir Thomas Sharpe.  Mr. Hiddleston has been, of course, incredible as Loki in several Marvel Studios films (most notably the first Thor and the first Avengers).  I’ve seen him turn in fine work in other films (such as Steven Spielberg’s War Horse), but I’d wondered if he would ever be able to shake the iconic role of Loki.  Let that now be put aside forever.  Mr. Hiddleston is magnificent as Sir Thomas, bringing an enormous amount of nuance to the character, creating a man who can be mysterious and dangerous and also sweet and endearing all at the same time.  The depth that Mr. Hiddleston is able to bring to Sir Thomas elevates Crimson Peak from a good story to a great one.  In lesser hands this character could have been a one-dimensional moustache-twirling villain, but Mr. Hiddleston brings to Sir Thomas so much more.  This is incredible work.

Jessica Chastain is an actress from whom, at this point, one expects a terrific performance, and she does not disappoint.  It’s great fun to watch Ms. Chastain in a more scenery-chewing, unrestrained role than many she has played in the past.  She’s great fun to watch, particularly in the third act when she really gets to dive into some crazy stuff.

I had no idea Charlie Hunnam was in this film, reuniting with Mr. del Toro after Pacific Rim.  He’s terrific, elevating what could have been a flat supporting role into a wonderful character who I was really rooting for (and fearful for!!) as the film progressed.  (Mr. Hunnam’s supporting role in this film feels far more fleshed out and human than his leading role in Pacific Rim!!  If only that film and character had half of this film and character’s heart!)  (Speaking of Pacific Rim reunions, I was also pleased to see Burn Gorman pop in a wonderful small role here in Crimson Peak as well!)

Crimson Peak is a ripping yarn, a great spooky story from the spook-master Guillermo del Toro.  It’s a far more subtle, interesting story than what one might expect from a film labeled as a “horror” film.  This is rich, adult work that also has wonderfully hideous ghosts and other freaky stuff.  That might seem contradictory, but under Mr. del Toro’s skilled hand it all works.  I really enjoyed this one.

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