Review: ‘Crimson Peak’ gives voice to both halves of Guillermo Del Toro’s brain

Guillermo Del Toro has been able to build a very unusual career for himself, balancing smaller Spanish-language titles that have been very personal with giant American blockbusters that are somehow equally personal. They're just personal to different sides of his personality, and when you're a filmmaker who is both a wicked-smart erudite voracious reader, an art collector whose tastes are all over the place, adult and part of a loving, close-knit family, raising strong daughters with a strong wife, who also just happens to be a filmmaker who is a 13-year-old boy who delights in the creepies and the crawlies and the gross and the absurd and superheroes and has a house full of the most amazing toys of all time including secrets rooms and part of the Haunted Mansion, then “personal” can cover a whole lot of ground.

Universal has done “Crimson Peak” a disservice by selling it as a horror film. It is, in the broadest of definitions, but early in the film, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is taking a meeting with a publisher named Ogilvie (Jonathan Hyde) and describing something she's written. “It's not a ghost story,” she insists. “It's a story with a ghost in it.” Del Toro is making sure you understand what you're about to see, and then he launches into a film that has far more in common with Hitchcock's “Rebecca” or even “Gaslight” than with “The Devil's Backbone.” This is a movie about a young woman, sheltered by her own disinterest in the conventional role of a young society woman, determined to write and publish and make her own way in the world, only to succumb to passion when she meets a man who inspires something unexpected, some desire she thought herself above before that point. That desire puts her in harms way, and with secrets on all sides, and Edith finds herself driven to solve the mysteries of the very mysterious Allerdale Hall.

There are ghosts. Edith sees her first one as a child, not long after her mother's death, and then at some other key moments as the film progresses, but there are many different types of ghosts that appear in films. These are beautiful, elegantly designed specters, rotting memories that linger, much more than they are meant as any sort of malevolent force. It is the human beings that are the true figures of fear in “Crimson Peak,” and it is a human foe that Edith eventually must face.

Co-written with his longtime collaborator Matthew Robbins, the most surprising thing about Del Toro's “Crimson Peak” script is just how few surprises there are in it. Things are fairly linear. There is kink. There are plenty of details that I find rich and interesting. But none of this seemed particularly surprising to me after the set-up. The first act of the film is where it feels like pretty much anything can happen. Set in Boston in 1900, it paints a picture of 22-year-old Edith as an outsider. It's the beginning of a new century, and society plays by a very particular set of rules. Edith idolizes Mary Shelley, and she spends her time focused on her writing, not worried about catching a husband. Her father Carter (Jim Beaver) is supportive, a genuinely good guy and a successful businessman, and he only wants whatever it is that Edith wants. She's frustrated when Ogilvie rejects her book, especially because he told her that it needed a love story. “Why must a woman always write about love? Stories of girls in search of the ideal husband or the man who eludes them… is there nothing else?” Cushing may gently prod her to find the right man and get married, but it's because he wants her happy, not because he wants to simply get it done and crush her spirit.

Enter Thomas Sharpe. He's a Baronet, something that is terribly impressive to the women of Boston society, and he's dashing in a pale and haunted sort of way. It's the perfect role for Tom Hiddleston, and I would imagine that every single girl who runs a Tumblr about him should schedule plenty of post-movie swooning time. He comes to Boston looking for money to help him realize the building of a steam drill that he designed. When he makes his presentation for Cushing, he meets Edith, and she finds herself instantly intrigued. She's suspicious precisely because she sees that other women have a certain reaction to him. What she reacts to at first is a recognition that Sharpe has a dream that others refuse to treat seriously, just like her desire to write, and it makes sense that he would be the one to finally pierce her self-professed lack of interest in all things romantic.

Thomas travels with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), and Cushing's rejection of their proposal is less about the proposal and more about him recognizing something rancid in the two of them. He doesn't trust them, and he's right not to. There's a hustle going on, one that Cushing sees even if Edith doesn't. Edith finds herself drawn to Thomas more and more, and he's expert at making her feel like she's finally being seen by someone. The biggest question in the film is whether Thomas ever really feels anything for Edith, or if what exists between them is entirely one-sided. There is no doubt that Edith falls for him, breaking the heart of young long-pining Dr. McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) in the process.

When Edith finds herself at an unexpected crossroads, she turns to Thomas for comfort, and she marries him, hoping he will comfort her, she is willing to leave Boston behind completely. Part of it is deep sorrow, and part of it is that she wants to give herself to this man finally. One of the few things I think really doesn't work about the film is also one of the most difficult things to write about as a critic at all because of how delicate a subject it is. This is a story about what happens when someone's passion is awoken for the first time, and it really only works if that passion plays properly. Mia Wasikowska is a very talented actor, and since the first episode of “In Treatment,” I have been a fan. She has enormous range as an actor, and I strongly suspect I'll be watching her work as long as I'm watching movies. She's even had great chemistry with Tom Hiddleston before in Jim Jarmusch's exquisite “Only Lovers Left Alive.” But in this film, the spark that has to drive much of what Edith chooses to do simply never ignites, and it comes down to Wasikowska herself. Some actors radiate a sort of inner heat, a passion, and other actors have other strengths. Hiddleston more than holds up his end of the bargain, giving good smolder from the moment he appears. He knows how to play the heat and how to turn it on for the scenes where it matters. There's just an imbalance in it, and it kept me from fully connecting to the film. Hunnam is the film's other biggest problem, as out of place in the period work as Keanu Reeves was in “Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's We-Swear-This-Is-Super-Faithful-To-The-Book Dracula,” but he's not in enough of the film to derail it in any significant way. Besides, the entire Boston sequence is elevated so much by Jim Beaver's enormously enjoyable work that it more than balances out.

Allerdale Hall itself is gorgeous, and once Guillermo gets his three main characters to the house, the rest of the film moves like a bullet. Like I said, it's very linear, and I don't think anyone's going to be terribly shocked by the “shocking” reveals in the last half-hour. But surprise can be overvalued, and “Crimson Peak” is one of those films worth watching more than once, worth exploring more deeply for the details of it. Jessica Chastain's performance here is not camp, as I've already heard it mislabeled, but is instead a sort of heightened arch villainy that is almost impossible to play perfectly straight. Chastain seemed like she relished the work she got to do in “Mama,” the film that Del Toro produced, and that same pleasure is evident in the work she does here. She knows exactly how fine a line there is between terrifying and hilarious, and she doesn't just walk the line… she positively pirouettes along it. The not-nearly-mysterious-enough mystery is resolved fairly easily, but that's not the main point. The score by Fernando Velazquez, the photography by Dan Laustsen, the overwhelming production design of Thomas Sanders… all of it is so lush, so dense that it feels like you can practically lean into the screen. This is a film of tactile decadence, such a rich sensory experience that it's almost suffocating.

I saw the film over a month ago, and I've had dozens of conversations about it since then with other people who have seen it. Normally, I like to publish a review well before those conversations begin so that it's relatively pure. I like my review to be about my opinion, not a reaction to anyone else's opinions. In this case, the film has been wildly divisive among the people who have talked to me about it. Some people have fallen head over heels for it, for the experience of it, the sheer sensation of it. I've also talked to people who rejected it completely, who hated every part of the film, including one person who literally gets angry when it comes up in conversation. I'm always extra-curious about that kind of reaction, especially since this isn't a movie about something controversial. It does get perverse in places, but not in a way that would set someone off. Part of what makes this a harder film to categorize than some of Del Toro's earlier efforts is because this isn't just one Del Toro or the other. Instead, I can see both halves of his personality here, and there's some dissonance between the guy who can't help but make a sequence in which a ghost tries to push its way through the membrane of reality into a terrifying, iconic image and the guy who is telling a story about how far human being will go to protect blood and land and love. Even with these warring instincts, though, what's clear is that this is 100% the film that Del Toro set out to make, a muscular if occasionally muddied expression of one of the most distinct voices in modern movies.

“Crimson Peak” opens everywhere on Friday.