In November 2006, this blog took the first or second swerve off into what’s become its near permanent shape, when I was blown away by Pan’s Labyrinth and set my thoughts down on the internet. In between, I’ve caught a lot of Guillermo del Toro movies, and the returns have been nigh on as diminishing as the returns on What Conspiracy, the consumer experience. At some point I moved from blogging a movie only when it was really worth talking about to blogging most of them regardless of the quality, and it seems to me that del Toro has been doing something similar with his scripts.
And so, to Crimson Peak. Firstly, it looks great, because of course it does. Secondly, it’s got a great cast, because del Toro can get a great cast whenever he wants one, because Pan’s Labyrinth. Thirdly, it makes less sense than a six monkeys typing the Bible in a zombie apocalypse, because a) del Toro and b) also del Toro. And fourthly, and most importantly, it packs the same emotional wallop as my electricity bill, which is almost impressive considering all the good actors and scenery and such as.
Mia Wasikowska is either one of the best young actresses of her generation or someone who has a knack for getting cast in roles which don’t require her to act. I’ve seen her in a whole bunch of movies now which pretty much required her to be an awkward person who couldn’t quite bridge the gap to a world too dumb for her, and somehow she’s been compelling in every one of them. And so here again. Mia makes Edith work, even when she’s making the most objectively stupid decisions a human being could possibly make. Too bad she’s being outshone by Jessica Chastain, who might even get some kind of award nomination out of this even with her hair dyed black. Just about clinging on by his fingernails is Tom Hiddleston. Who’s only your actual Loki and the guy who managed to upstage Robert Downey Jr in Avengers Assemble. Go girls. You show ‘em. Tucked around the edges is the ever dependable Jim Beaver, who gets killed, because Jim Beaver, y’idjits, and Charlie Hunnam in the role of Milton Arbogast - don’t worry, if you go to the movie, you’ll see what I mean by that.
The plot - well, you know this thing about suspending disbelief? You’re going to need one hell of a big crane. There are ghosts, and no-one who’s ever been to a del Toro movie will waste a second thinking that the ghosts are the bad guys. Icky looking as all hell, but like the supernatural in every other del Toro movie, they’re there to keep you edgy while it sinks in that it’s always the humans you should really be watching; the real monsters are all around us. Or just us. But as for the actual plot, it’s crazy 14 year old girl potboiler stuff, stuck in a haunted house which makes less sense than anything else I’ve seen this year.
Tom Hiddleston’s Tom Sharpe is the heir to the titular heap, which is a big mansion in the middle of nowhere. Four hours from the nearest town. Even in Cumbria, that’s impressive. The county’s about sixty miles by sixty. A human can walk 12 miles in four hours, a horse drawn cart can cover 20 miles or so in the same time. Even in what’s still the least densely populated county in England, it would take real effort to find a site for a house four hours from the nearest town, and I’m blowed if I know how you’d get it built once you’d picked the site. How would you get the materials in? Where would the labour come from? The food?
But that’s the easiest bit. The wealth of the Sharpes, such as it is, rests on their rich deposits of gloopy red clay, which is supposedly great for making bricks. But it’s not just the wealth that rests on the clay. The whole mansion is built on top of the clay mine, and now it’s falling into it, which is surprising only in that it didn’t happen about twenty minutes after the plans were drawn. Tom Sharpe is stuck in a quest to get funding to make the world’s best bucket excavator so as to get the clay out of the mine (and further undermine the house, but it’s clear that Tom’s ability to take the long view isn’t his strongest suit), but it never seems to have occurred to anyone that getting it out of the ground is a trivial problem compared to getting it out of Cumbria. Four hours from the nearest town? No decent road to that town?
Poor Edith is so beguiled by Tom that none of this bothers her; she heads off from muddy old Buffalo New York to Cumbria without a backward glance, and once she’s in the mansion, she seems stuck there, as if the sharp intelligence and independence we’ve seen so far comes with a Tom-operated off-switch. She’s a smart modern woman with a mind of her own until she gets stuck in a situation which a Barbie doll would be bright enough to scarper from.
In short, this is a plot which works only if everyone is an idiot. And with only three players doing most of the heavy lifting, there’s just not enough going on to distract us from the idiocy. Del Toro placed his faith in the sets, which are astonishing without being remotely believable; the house is full of architectural details so disturbing that it’s impossible to believe anyone would have paid to have them built. It’s constantly unsettling and beguiling, but it makes no more sense than anything else does; there are leaves constantly settling into the hallway from the ruined roof far above, but there isn’t a tree for miles around. If you want your craziness to have any weight, it has to contrast with something.
And this brings me back to Pan’s Labyrinth, which works because there are lots of arresting characters, and the fantasy is poised against relentless dour reality, so that both pack an extraordinary punch. Crimson Peak is all goofy, all the time, and so nothing really matters. In the end, not even peerless set design and genuinely good acting can save it from it own lack of weight.