Think of red. No. Redder. Now you're getting closer to the color of Jessica Chastain's dress when she makes her first appearance in the symbol-laden Crimson Peak. It might be the reddest thing I've ever seen in a movie. It's that red.
Obviously there are some visual tricks at play — a touch of desaturation here, over-saturation there, making sure nothing else even remotely red is in the shot, etcetera. But watch its seams strain and its curves stretch as Chastain works a piano with an air of menace, like she knows the notes of an apocalyptic dirge composed in memoriam of all existence. The red dress is beautiful. It's stylish. It makes you want to be in the same room. It makes you feel like you've never been in a room in a place or with people that are so beautiful. You despair for its beauty. It's so red.
That red dress is such an apt metaphor for the movie itself. It's beautiful, sinister, evocative, symbolic, yet it's only a dress, bereft of meaning or substance absent of context.
Crimson Peak itself is a beautiful object, director Guillermo del Toro's latest in a long string of gorgeous movies. The story is a somewhat thin fairy tale, and that's really going to bug some people, but for others, basking in del Toro's gory glory will be more than enough. Substantively, Pan's Labyrinth is still the standard by which all other del Toro movies should be judged, but stylistically, he's set a new standard of breathtaking gothic romantic beauty. That's not to say the film is empty. Just as that red dress is filled out by an alternately restrained and manic Chastain, this movie is filled with bravura melodrama and a sense of place and atmosphere so consuming it will stick with you for days, weeks, years maybe. Everything is heightened to the point of unreality, separating it from the world in which we live, in favor of building a world in which we wish we could live — if it wasn't so damn spooky.
The movie follows the young Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), who's basically a Jane Austen character. She wants to write masculine fiction and dash all those stuffy Victorian conventions on the rocks of New England's seashore. One moment she lashes out at a group of socialites taken with a newly arrived Baronet from England, informing them that a Baronet is simply an aristocratic holdover whose fortune was accumulated at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised. The next moment she's practically drooling over said Baronet, the handsome but somehow damaged Thomas Sharpe, played oh-so-charmingly by Tom Hiddleston. He's so Byronic he could be Rochester from Jane Eyre, which is kind of funny because Wasikowska actually starred in an adaptation of Jane Eyre in 2011.
Joining Thomas is his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), who is so clearly full of schemes, it's a wonder Del Toro doesn't accompany her every appearance with a dramatic organ glissando and a crash of lightning. Thomas and Jane have arrived looking for investors in his mining outfit because they live on a hill that's absolutely filled (and I'm not kidding here) with clay that looks like blood, and it's apparently great for making bricks. Edith is quickly taken with Thomas, and after circumventing her father's concerns about the suitor (via his death), they run away to England, and to the scariest house ever built.
That house is the real star of the movie. Every room is painstakingly decorated. The lights, the moulding, the appliances, the bannisters. The entire house was built to Guillermo del Toro's twisted specifications with the intent of freaking everyone out. If there was an Oscar for most zealous adherence to aesthetic, he would win it.
Edith quickly finds the house is filled with ghosts, but this isn't a ghost story. It's a story with ghosts in it. She actually says that in the movie by the way — when she's explaining her own story to a potential publisher. Did I mention the movie is heavy-handed and melodramatic?
What follows is a lot of bloody fun. Del Toro milks every moment for tension, drama, and atmosphere. But he also occasionally allows his melodrama to slip into camp, granting the audience a few nudging laughs at the movie's overwrought nature. For all that over-the-top filmmaking, Del Toro is still restrained enough that his haymakers land clean, knocking the audience back with some applause-worthy moments.
Credit for restraint belongs just as much to Peak's three stars. Wasikowska, Hiddleston, and Chastain treat the madness that surrounds them with a shoulder-shrugging air of business as usual. Only Charlie Hunnam's Holmesian character, a spurned suitor named Dr. Alan McMichael, seems to recognize the utter weirdness of the film's proceedings. As good as Wasikowska is, much of Crimson Peak's charm can be attributed to Hiddleston and Chastain. Just as in last year's Only Lovers Left Alive, Hiddleston proves he could hold your attention just while thinking about his phone number. And just as in Only Lovers Left Alive, he's paired with an equally, if not more enthralling co-star — Tilda Swinton and Chastain respectively.
Crimson Peak ends up being an amalgamation of influences and inspirations. Guillermo del Toro seems to acknowledge every giant upon whose shoulders he stands. And in the process becomes even more of a giant himself.