This is a would-be writer’s look at Crimson Peak. Spoilers abound.
Here’s my mini-review: To watch Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak is to endure 118 minutes.
To be sure, the film’s story has a distinguished pedigree. Indeed, an elevator pitch for the film might be: it’s A. S. Byatt’s novella Morpho Eugenia meets Henry James meets Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers meets the Bluebeard fairy tale.
Despite this Frankensteinian construction, the setup, however, is simple enough. Impoverished nobleman, Sir Thomas Sharpe, is a fortune hunter trying to save the family manor. He sets his eyes upon an American heiress/ budding novelist named Edith Cushing, who is naïve and idealistic. She’s also not like other girls. While her female peers want to lay claim to Sir Thomas Sharpe for his title, Edith is higher minded. Naturally, when she finally meets Sir Thomas, there is a Jane Eyre-ish meeting of the imagination between the two, and Edith falls in love. But standing in their way is Edith’s beloved father, who sees through Sharpe’s sudden interest in his daughter. Let’s just say the father is summarily dealt with in a most brutal way.
Indeed, brutality is the natural order of the world. At least, according to the film. Del Toro presents us with this dark theme early in the movie. After Edith befriends Sir Thomas’ sister, Lucille, the two go for a walk in the park where they observe butterflies dying in the cold. Lucille explains the cannibalistic nature of butterflies, and the scene ends with a shot of a butterfly writhing on the ground as it’s being eaten alive by a swarm of ants.
It’s an eat or be eaten world.
But seeing that simple (and simplistic) truth requires a clear-eyed view of the world. Perfect sight. And it’s not for nothing that Sir Thomas Sharpe’s romantic foil, Alan McMichael, is an ophthalmologist. The world of Crimson Peak is not for the idealistic.
And certainly not for the dewy-eyed, idealistic artist, such as Edith Cushing.
Why Crimson Peak doesn’t work
Crimson Peak is a gothic romance, a genre that relies more heavily on mystery and suspense than it does on romance tropes. As such narratives typically revolve around unaccountable happenings and encounters with strange characters, the chief pleasure of the genre is learning what’s actually going on. The reader is promised a situation that is usually horrific or scandalous or both; and the revelation is well worth the wait. Indeed, gothic romances written in the 18th Century were proto-mysteries, but instead of a detective, the stories use amateur sleuths.
Edith Cushing fills that role in Crimson Peak. After she weds Sir Thomas Sharpe, he whisks her away to his isolated manor house, Allerdale Hall. No one lives there except Thomas and Lucille. There doesn’t even seem to be any servants.
Once there, the mysteries start almost right away. As Edith walks up to the house, a pampered little lap dog appears. But who does it belong to? The closest neighbors live miles and miles away. The dog, however, belongs to someone. It has a collar around its neck.
After that, other little mysteries start piling up. There’s an abandoned traveling trunk discarded in the bowels of the house, and one night, Edith finds a box of wax recording cylinders. We later learn that these hold the answers to all the mysteries, and they’ve just been left conveniently lying around!
But who needs those cylinders to know what’s going on? Certainly not the film’s viewers. If this were a novel, the author would probably have restricted the POV to Edith, but the film gives us not only her POV but Sir Thomas’ and Lucille’s POV as well. We know what’s going on, and so there’s no suspense. No mystery.
The film doesn’t even give us the pleasure of storytelling; there’s no suspense surrounding the climactic reveal.
I suppose this is the downside of meta-narratives.