Symbol: Distortion of Nature (Insects)
Major Theme: Taboo Love
Crimson Peak is far removed from director Guillermo del Toro’s other films (Pacific Rim, Pans Labyrinth, The Shape of Water). Known for his ability to shock and dismay, this newest venture was so beautifully constructed, I was more in awe than I was horrified. The cinematography brings the audience into a turn of the century steam-punk era. The costume designs and most notable the mansion at Crimson Peak, lend to the films overall hauntingly romantic feel.
At the start of the film, the opening credits for the production company (Universal Studios) and production house (Legendary Films) are shrouded in a thick, almost tangible hue of red, introducing the audience to a central theme of distortion. We meet our heroine Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) as a young child attending her mother’s funeral. Her narration explains, immediately after this event she begins to see ghosts. It is curious that the first apparition to greet Edith is her mother, yet not in the typical ethereal fashion as most loved ones are represented once they have passed on. This spirit is dark, ominous, with elongated fingers and a sinister hollowed face. Edith’s reaction to the ghoul is underwhelming, she is scared but not believably terrified as it warns her against the impending doom of Crimson Peak.
Reminiscent of Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Edith forms a negative initial opinion of Sir. Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Just before making his acquaintance, Edith passes a group of women en route to typing up her story. She comments that a Baron is nothing more than a parasite with a tittle; siphoning money from those who tend his lands. One of the women warns Edith to be careful dismissing men in such a manner, referencing Jane Austen, who died a spinstress. Edith retorts, she prefers being compared to Mary Shelley, for she died a widow.
The elements of industrialism and materialism represent themselves with the introduction of Sir. Sharpe, a visiting British inventor and Baron seeking capital for his clay mining machine. Sharpe is immediately taken with aspiring writer, Edith Cushing. Edith struggles with her current story as her publisher advises her to focus on a a theme of love rather than ghosts. Under the assumption that her feminine penmanship gives her away, she arrives in her father office to type her completed submission, and upon leaving runs into Sharpe, who glances at her manuscript and becomes immediately taken with the tale. Edith explains, it is not merely a ghost story, but a story with a ghost in it. She goes onto explain that the ghosts are actually a metaphor for the past. Here is where I notice a potential foreshadowing of a prevalent theme, which may reveal itself through film. Though ghosts play a pivotal role, they do not appear to be the main focus.
The distortion of nature becomes clear following the representation of class tensions, and along with the final revelation of taboo love, encompass the central themes of the film. We see Edith’s father Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), a hard working self-made businessman. Sharpe has come to America with the hope of Mr. Cushing financing his machine. It is immediately apparent that Mr. Cushing has formed a negative opinion of the Baron, as he comments after shaking hands, commenting they are too soft. Mr. Cushing explains that his own rough hands are a reflection of who he is and the hard work he has accomplished to become so successful, and goes on to explain, in America we bank on effort and not inheritance, as Sharpe’s hands and title suggest.
Edith’s longtime admirer Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) arrives at her home in the next scene to accompany her father to an event. He is disappointed when Edith does not join them before Mr. Cushing brilliantly expresses his love for his daughter’s agency.
We return to Edith’s room in the following scene, she lay in her bed researching castles, a picture of Cumberland is seen in an open book. Suddenly, her bedroom door begins to rattle violently and on investigation, it’s found there is no one on the other side. Just as she closes the door, her mother’s ghostly arms outstretch from beyond the door and grabs Edith, warning her again of Crimson Peak. The doorbell rings and we find Sharpe, awaiting in the foyer.
The camera focuses on a dark haired woman in a striking red dress, entertaining at the piano This proves a stark contrast to Edith’s entry; white dress with delicate pearl accents and hair piled atop her head in soft golden curls. Later the mysterious woman is introduced as Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain), Sir. Sharpe’s sister. Class tension rears its ugly head again just before the start of the dance. Sharpe chooses Edith over another perspective young lady, the girl’s mother approaches, rife with disappointment and tells Edith not to worry, everybody has their place and she will make sure that Edith finds hers. The camera then cuts to a close up Mr. Cumberland, obvious in his joint disappointed with his daughters choice of dance partner.
In the next scene we are brought into the following day, Edith walks along side Lucille as she explains to Edith that the lovely butterflies which they’ve happen upon are not often seen where she is from, describing the Sharpe home as having only black moths. To this, Edith asks what the moths feed upon before Lucille exclaims rather dismissively, butterflies prior to the scene ending.
Interesting to note, as in subsequent scenes, Edith is the epitome of light; donning an elegant white dress and matching hat, again in contrast with Lucille; dressed in head to toe black, save for a strikingly elaborate and oversized red rose, placed just over her breast.
There additional focus placed on her red oval ring. An urgency surrounds this item as Sharpr desperately tries to get Edith alone. The audience is left to assume he wishes to present the ring to her but is soon deterred by Mr. Cushing. He has become enraged over the display of social engagements between Sir Thomas and Edith. He asks to speak privately with the young Baron and his sister, asking the pair to immediately return home to England. A file is presented which Mr. Cushing has procured from a private investigator. The audience does not see its contents but this revelation along with a sizable check are enough to illicit a devastating rebuff and insulting speech from Sir Thomas to Edith, leaving he young woman devastated as he accuses her of being a mere child who knows nothing of love. Here we see the films first iris shot, closing in on Lucille and ending the scene.
Gender ambiguity with regard to the films first act of murder, and an encompassing savior narrative successfully represent the films prevailing Gothic mise en scѐne. In addition, through the rest of the film, distortions of nature are seen throughout Allerdale Hall and it’s grounds. The sibling’s mansion has a decaying roof above its foyer, lending to beautiful cinematography as dried leaves flutter through, giving way to the changing seasons as snow later begins falling through the ceiling.
Edith appears in front of an entry way mirror to remove her hat, before she can place it on the ledge below the mirror, she sees piles of dead and dying flies, a dark omen typically foreshadowing death. A moth flutters past and is followed through a decrepit wall which bisects a hallway covered in these same moths describe by Lucille. It is revealed later that the Baroness has captured butterflies, they sit on her vanity, trapped in glass jars. This imagery is viewed as a symbol of Edith’s combined entrapment and future deterioration inside the mansion.
The mansions walls ooze with dark clay, the foundation has begun to sink into the mine below, and red clay inevitably starts coming through the walls. As the story line progresses to its end, the grounds outside slowly begin to reveal red clay as it seeps through the surface below the snow. In addition, the clay from the walls equally turns red lending to a dramatic turn in the story line.
These elements intertwine with del Torro’s ability to capture the unapologetic gore of head trauma close-ups, engaging the audience in a horrific way that expertly remains intriguing and visually intoxicating. The ghosts to be sure, are ghoulish in appearance but you become enamored with each spirits story and and what each has come to warn against, you almost look forward to the frightening encounters in order to gain additional piece to the overall puzzle.
The only critique I have with regard to this otherwise stunning cinematic experience is del Toro’s decision to utilize the iris shot for the closing of several scenes. This particular film device shows a circle as it encloses a person or object before the scene fades to black. In my opinion, this particular retro framing took me out of the movie a bit. I understand the desire to highlight important film elements that will be referred to later, however it felt a bit campy for such a dramatic Gothic Romance.