Last night, my wife and I went to see Crimson Peak. We were pretty excited about the movie from the start; it’s a Del Toro movie, which is enough to pique our interests right away, and listening to Tom Hiddleston talk about it on the Daily Show only interested me further. I’m a complete mark for gothic films. I didn’t get to see it opening weekend, but I did see a great many reactions, and that only made it more interesting. Was it the film as it exists that people were having trouble with, or the film that people thought existed, based on the choices made in the production of the film’s trailers?
Now, having seen it, I’m struck by the way choice defines this movie. It’s true in the aforementioned ad campaign, the clear sign of marketing folks who have no idea how to advertise a romance film outside of the Nicholas Sparks template. It’s true from a metanarrative perspective; Del Toro’s usage of visuals, dividing sections of the movie with thematic color choices, the several instances where a given scene fades to black by zeroing in on a focal point first. It’s in the design of the ghosts; the focus on their grisly visuals not for simple shock value, but to convey important clues. It’s in the minor visual gag during the final act of each woman reaching for a bigger knife, undercutting the tension and drama only slightly and somehow engaging the viewer even more.
But it’s most true within the context of the film itself. Every action of the film’s lead lady, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), defines the narrative of the world around her, in a way that is almost never true of this type of film. We’re treated to so many damsels, so many victims of events that transpire that Edith herself is a revelation; a young girl and a writer who knows, even early on, what she’s up against. When she’s rejected early on in the film, she makes the choice to type her manuscript instead, so that she is judged on the content of her work, and not her gender. From the start of the movie onward, she is haunted, quite literally, and even though she shrinks in fear from these apparitions, she never lets that fear control her. She remembers, she contextualizes the information she’s given, and she acts on it.
She is deceived, true; this is a thing that happens to her rather than by choice. But this even pivotal thing is not enough to define her ; merely her location (the visceral reaction she has to Allendale’s nickname is absolutely heart-wrenching). When she moves with her new husband and his sister, the Sharpes (Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain), it’s with the promise of the future, of taking the reins of something and filling it with new life. Even then, as she’s systematically manipulated and poisoned, she’s the agent of her own salvation; each haunting frightens her, as does her new sister-in-law, but she does not back down from the challenges and the mystery that they represent. She gathers clues like a true detective throughout the film; the letter, the key, the wax cylinders, and finally the gramophone. She unravels the truth alone, without assistance, relying only on her intelligence. When her doctor friend, Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) arrives late in the film to “save” her, he’s necessary only for a moment to prevent her immediate death. In that moment, he’s horribly wounded himself, and once again Edith must stand on her own. It’s something she does, as she’s proven herself to do throughout.
Crimson Peak is a movie defined by choices, and what makes it truly great is the way it lets its heroine make her own.