Crimson Peak – 2015

Director Guillermo Del Toro
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver
Screenplay Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins, Lucinda Coxson

Full disclosure: I am a fan of Del Toro. I will give him the kinds of breaks that I would not grant others. For this reason, my reviews of his films should be viewed as words of someone who aspires to pay tribute to real cinematic art, who enjoys Del Toro’s variation of this art. It’s not that I think Del Toro is a completely comprehensive filmmaker. He errs on the side of visual art and lets the words fall where they may. The resulting visuals are often so overpowering as to render the weaknesses less noticeable. This time, the weaknesses are harder to overcome.

Del Toro’s primary weakness is in his scripting. It is often so telegraphed, one has to shut down part of the brain to avoid knowing what is coming down every thread of the story. Here we have the tale of a newlywed couple who come together despite the protestations of the bride’s father. When the patriarch ends up dead, the couple moves back to the groom’s native Cumberland, England, to a place Allerdale Hall. The place goes by another name in the winter. Two bits to the first one to guess the name.

The groom, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston, giving a strangely earnest performance) has a sister Lucille (Chastain) who shows a peculiar interest that things are just so with brother and his bride Edith Cushing (Wasikowska). As Cushing, Wasikowska is playing naïvely against type. Chastain’s Lucille is so transparent, it almost amazes that this is the same actress who moved to the forefront of her field with her work in The Help and Take Shelter.

Still, we fight through all of these red flags just because we want to see the house, in all of its expectedly grotesque glory. The house, with a few exceptions, doesn’t disappoint. There are many allegories represented with each hole, crack and all of that seeping red clay. As if this isn’t enough, we discover that the home is literally sinking into the sanguine substance. Thomas has a dream to make something of the resource, and one can feel a battle of the wills that he pull it all out before it pulls him and all he loves within its depths.

Then there are the ghosts. In all, they are lovely creatures. Each one of them with a distinct purpose, and if, like the rest of the script, they are obvious about it, Del Toro definitely gets every dime out of the budget. The pace and build are excellent for the first act. There is not as much attention paid to consistent buildup for the rest of the film. It is almost as though he has so much to show, he wants to get it in before he runs out of film. It feels wrong that The Hobbit is three bloated films and this one can’t afford to give each sequence just a little hush to pull in the audience.

In this less sweeping form, without giving the viewer’s eyes a chance to wonder, we are instead given more time to wonder how much longer until the next obvious card is turned. This portrayal makes Del Toro’s skill seem sadly inadequate for his incredible vision. He deserves better.

What could help get him there? Ultimately, better writing. Coxson is uncredited, and one wonders if it was by her choice. Robbins and Del Toro did much better work in rewriting others material for Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. That, plus the remarkable Hellboy films makes one wonder if Del Toro should stick to adding his own flourishes to other people’s work. It’s not that he can’t do great, original work, as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth show. Even if written just after the release of the latter, there are not enough layers or surprises in this story to pull in anyone.

Still, I follow Del Toro because it is obvious he loves movies as much as anyone on the planet. He has a visual palate like no other and a macabre innocence that Burton has tried but never convincingly displayed in his own, more successful career. Once he finds the right collaborator, there is no doubt Del Toro will create a slew of memorable images that would leave a beautiful mark on cinematic history.

(**1/2 out of *****)

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