Guillermo del Toro has pulled off a difficult trick with Crimson Peak: making a movie that detractors claim is too easy to figure out and yet too difficult to categorize. According to Variety, this ghost story—or rather “story with a ghost in it,” as its heroine would say—has disappointed audiences by being “more of a romance than a straight scare machine.” But even as the film’s genre refuses to settle down, the plot, according to critics, confirms expectations to a fault. As A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times, “it does not take much of a sleuth to discern that some terrible things have happened” in the luxuriously rotting mansion to which Crimson Peak brings its heroine as a virgin bride.
Well, terrible things have been happening in the House of Usher since 1839. Is that any reason not to visit? Before the gorgeously perverse Crimson Peak fades from the screen like one of its own wraiths, I want to make a case that this is a movie worth viewing. I might even say it demands to be seen—sight being its dominant motif, and a reluctance to look at the obvious being the engine of its venerable plot.
Cast as another strange adventure of Mia Wasikowska, the pale and outwardly fragile actress who has previously shown reserves of inner strength and weirdness for Tim Burton and David Cronenberg, Crimson Peak is the tale of Edith Cushing, a young woman in gaslight-era Buffalo who wears eyeglasses and ignores the amorous glances of a dashing ophthalmologist. Her would-be suitor, Dr. McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), takes an interest in the latest development in optical science: spirit photography. He has recently acquired an entire collection of indisputably authentic glass slides, which he is eager for Edith to view. But she doesn’t need to be convinced that ghosts are real. She can see them with the naked eye and has been doing so since she was a little girl.
Visited now and then by the ghost of her cholera-stricken mother, whose intrusions haven’t exactly wrapped the girl in sustaining warmth, and bound perhaps a little too tightly to her wealthy, widowed father, Edith has grown into an aspiring author, who derides the sentimentality of people who would marry her off and disdains the myopia of editors who would limit her, as a woman, to purveying only love stories. Plausibly single-minded in her ambition, thanks to the endowments that del Toro and Wasikowska give her, Edith has a writer’s capacity for focused work (witness the inky thumbprint she absently leaves on her forehead), an appropriate range of reference, and a ready wit. When teased that she’ll die an old maid, like Jane Austen, Edith shoots back that she’d prefer to be Mary Shelley and die as a widow.
She has a writer’s eye, too. After being introduced to an English baronet, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who has come to Buffalo seeking investors for a machine he’s invented, Edith points out to her father that the suit of this sleek aristocrat is beautifully cut but almost threadbare. She means to compliment Thomas on his fortitude; she thinks she may have been too hasty to express American contempt for Europeans born with titles and property. But this seemingly acute observation is actually a sign that desire has at last clouded Edith’s vision. She sees only what pleases her about Thomas, overlooking the shadows that trail him like a cloak. To the audience, the man is clearly on the make—and like Roderick Usher, he’s also manifestly too close to his sister, played by Jessica Chastain with a brunette wig, a facial expression that’s barely warmed to room temperature, and a gait that makes you think she’s got wheels, not feet, under those floor-sweeping velvet gowns. To stroll through the park with Thomas’s sister is to find dozens of butterflies littering the lawn with trembling, dying wings. Yet Edith, blind to the omen, goes on asking about the Sharpe estate, oblivious to the close-up del Toro gives you of ants biting into the butterflies’ eyes.