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Film Reviews

Peak-y Blinder: Crimson Peak Reviewed
Tom Duggins , October 16th, 2015 07:13

Tom Duggins reviews Guillermo Del Toro's gothic fantasia, out in cinemas today

It is a truth universally acknowledged that young love is tough, but young love for those prone to howling visitations from black unguent-dripping phantasms? Even tougher. Guillermo Del Toro is back and, after his flirtation with the rock-em-sock-em of Pacific Rim, has decided to return to horror with Crimson Peak: a murderous melodrama pitched somewhere between a blood-soaked Jane Austen novel and Sleepy Hollow. It’s a mad, overblown Byronic meltdown and it’s enjoyable as hell.

Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, a sensitive young woman in late nineteenth century America who dreams of being a published writer but is told to abandon her frivolous ghost stories and try writing a good old fashioned romance. Edith isn’t much convinced, but luckily, inspiration may be close at hand. A dashing young baronet by the name of Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) has come to town to pitch his engineering plans to Edith’s father. Although she isn’t won over initially (a baronet is “a parasite with a title” she declares snootily) all the early signs are promising: he keeps eye-balling her in the fashionably gaunt and manic style of the period, and his sister (Jessica Chastain, sporting 1887’s most terrifying centre-parting) seems to have taken a real shine to her as well – stroking Edith’s face with the wings of dying butterflies and striking up fun conversations about things living off of other things. If you can’t detect the stirrings of a marriage proposal and a shit-scary old mansion, you’re probably not too familiar with the gothic genre, and I would venture that leaves you missing out on some of the fun.

The film’s tongue seems to be firmly placed in the bit of its skull where the cheek used to be: nodding at all sorts of period clichés whilst still enjoying them, and veering toward pastiche without losing any of its horrible, ghoulish bite. Certainly, the central acting performances can be awarded a lot of credit for ensuring the pleasure of that tonal teeter. Mia Wasikovska maintains Edith’s credibility as a strong heroine despite the mandatory weeping bouts of a Victorian lady, and Jessica Chastain is so good as the deranged Lucille Sharpe that I wonder if an opportunity hasn’t gone begging by not casting her as Lady Macbeth alongside Michael Fassbender in the most recent Shakespeare adaptation. In a film with no shortage of CGI ghouls, she’s probably the scariest thing in it. Crazy without really losing control, her performance is emblematic of what makes the film successful overall.

The almost-but-not-quite pastiche quality of the film derives from a lot of the separate elements being nudged up in intensity just perceptibly higher than might be expected. It isn’t just bloody, it’s whimsically bloody. The Sharpe’s homestead, for example, is built on red clay foundations of the most…sanguine hue. (No doubt it makes for good tennis come the summer, but when it starts oozing out of the floorboards, well, that’s a game changer). The editing is neat and very pacey, which also contributes – for a film with a running time of just under two hours, there isn’t really any slack to speak of, and it’s easier to be tongue-in-cheek without derailing a scene when things are speeding along so nicely. Even the choice of lighting is almost too much without really becoming so: early segments of the film seem to take place almost entirely in blood-brown interiors with queasy turquoise light flooding into them. The combined effect is to make you a little edgy but not tense, alert but still fairly relaxed. It may have blood on its fangs, but it can still flash a cheesy grin.

Crimson Peak won’t compare too favourably with Del Toro’s undoubted career highs, namely Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and that’s because, ultimately, this isn’t a film that will bowl you over with its imagination. We’re not witnessing anything particularly new here, but it does offer something equally valuable. This is a genre film made by people who evidently know the world of gothic romance inside out. They know it well enough to have their fun with its dramatic ironies, whilst still making sure the story works. Excluding some distinctly grizzly stuff at the very climax of the film, it scares without terrifying. Whilst that might mean weak sauce to some horror fanatics, it should be a delight to the more casual horror tourist. Crimson Peak gives good shriek – just don’t forget the smelling salts, and don’t wear white.

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