Crimson Peak lets the madwoman out of the attic, with glorious results

Crimson Peak has replaced Mad Max: Fury Road as my favorite film of 2015, and that’s saying something because I have a passionate love for Fury Road. I honestly didn’t expect Crimson Peak to be my kind of movie, as I felt like the trailers showed it as more of a horror flick than it turned out to be. While I like the occasional zombie or slasher movie, I don’t like to watch anything that’s actually frightening, so I almost didn’t see Crimson Peak at all on account of its [in hindsight, totally unnecessarily] very creepy-looking ghosts.

I’m so glad I saw it anyway, because if there’s one thing that Crimson Peak isn’t, it’s frightening. Instead, Crimson Peak is a stunningly imagined and gorgeously detailed Gothic romance that is at once a highly traditional take on the genre as well as an incredible subversion and interrogation of the standard Gothic tropes and conventions.

Early in the movie, our writer-heroine Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) says of her own story that it’s not a ghost story–it’s just a story with ghosts in it. The ghost is a metaphor, you see. It’s a little much, really, and it almost feels as if the movie is self-conscious rather than self-aware about what it is. And what Crimson Peak is is a terrifically beautiful, better-than-middling clever twist on a classic Gothic romance. The “twist,” of course, is that the romantic hero isn’t, in any sense of the word. Instead, both of the male leads–impoverished nobleman Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and handsome doctor Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam)–take a decided backseat to the women in this tale.

There are no passive, fragile flowers here. Guillermo del Toro gives us a world that is far fuller of women than what would normally be expected in this sort of story, and just the presence of these other women makes it easier for the characters of Edith and Lucille (the incomparable Jessica Chastain) to exist as the imperfect and compelling women that they need to be to carry the weight of this story.

As a protagonist, Edith seems at first a little too conventional. She’s got a dead mother, a bookish pastime, a dull suitor, and an overprotective father. It’s all pretty genre-standard stuff, but it’s the details that save the first third of the film from being ordinary. The first time we meet the adult Edith, she’s confronted by some social acquaintances on her way to a meeting with an editor who she hopes will publish her novel. I knew I was going to love her when she responded to an insult about dying a spinster like Jane Austen with a quip that she’d prefer to die a widow like Mary Shelley.

It has little to do with the rest of the story and could easily have been cut, but I loved Edith’s meeting with the publisher and the scene where she begins typing her novel at her father’s office with the encouragement of the woman receptionist. It’s material that really has no purpose other than to show us who Edith is and make her a more well-rounded character, which is a refreshing change in a genre that’s known for paper-thin heroines.

That said, I almost wonder why they bothered with Edith’s background as an aspiring novelist. Once she marries Thomas and moves to England, her writing is largely forgotten as she becomes consumed with uncovering the secrets of Allerdale Hall. On the one hand this makes sense, what with the ghosts and all, and it makes Edith an extremely genre-savvy heroine. On the other hand, it makes much of the first third of the movie entirely superfluous as Edith doesn’t have any special knowledge or skills related to her literary knowledge and occupation. I’m torn between really liking and enjoying that first act and being frustrated that it feels like such an unnecessary and disconnected prologue to the real story.

All in all, though, I have to say I ultimately find myself on team first act. It meanders, and it doesn’t contribute much to the later parts of the film, but it does establish a sort of normalcy to compare and contrast with Edith’s experiences at Allerdale Hall, where she proves herself to be clever, resourceful, and brave. Edith is more than capable of rescuing herself, and I actually really liked that I never felt that she was in so much danger she might not be able to handle it.

Our other female lead, Lucille Sharpe, is something else. In many ways, Lucille is the character in Crimson Peak who is most interesting and who most defies stereotypes. In another story, Lucille might have been a classic madwoman in the attic, which is barely a character at all, but here she’s allowed out of the attic (both literally and metaphorically) and is given an almost alarming amount of agency along with big heaping piles of characterization. Lucille is not a woman who can be hidden, shuffled off, or forgotten, and I would argue that Edith and Lucille are mutually antagonistic foils who both have heroic qualities.

The story of Crimson Peak revolves around Edith, Lucille, and their conflict, with the concerns of the male characters definitely secondary. Even more broadly, when we take into account the ghosts that are all too common in Edith’s world, Crimson Peak becomes a story about the many ways in which women help and harm each other.

Perhaps my favorite thing about Crimson Peak, however, is the visual aspects of its storytelling. This is not just your run-of-the-mill costume or scenery porn. It certainly is gorgeous, but for a reason.

Allerdale Hall is fantastically surreal, with its Escher-esque staircases, vaguely questionable geometry, plague of moths, horrifying noises, and the red clay that seems to color most every surface of it. I would have loved to see Edith get to explore even more of this house, which I’m sure holds enough secrets for a sequel.

All of the costumes were perfectly sumptuous (and I want to wear all of Lucille’s clothes), but for me it’s Edith’s look that stands out as a true achievement. There is a lot of typical Gothic imagery in Edith’s costuming, but with many cleverly subtle differences that highlight the ways that Edith is not an ordinary romantic heroine.

Edith’s colors are angelic gold and white, which set her apart from Lucille’s positively vampiric black, red, and blue, but this isn’t the whole story of Edith’s wardrobe by a long shot. When Edith is at her best and most confident, she appears in dark gold, with enormous puffy shoulders that make her seem larger and more substantial. This is what she wears when she meets her publisher, in her first flirtatious meeting with Thomas Sharpe, and in two scenes in which she initiates physical intimacy with Thomas. When Edith is more vulnerable or frightened, we see her in voluminous white nightgowns, but we also see her in these fluffy confections when she’s at her bravest and most inquisitive as she unravels the Sharpes’ secrets and confronts the ghosts of Allerdale Hall.

This is also her look for the final showdown between her and Lucille—an epic knife fight in which both women are wearing their nightgowns, with their hair unbound, and fight it out in the red-stained snow—which is one of my favorite things I’ve ever seen in any movie. It’s seriously at least as cool as anything in Fury Road, albeit in an entirely different direction.

I guess what I’m saying, really, is that everyone should go see this movie. At least once. Having seen it twice now, I can say that it is even better the second time around. If you love to pick apart and analyze every aspect of a film, Crimson Peak is a must-see. If you hate all that critical thinking stuff, it might not be the movie for you.

Personally, I’m already looking forward to writing retrospective looks at this movie every few years for the rest of my life.

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