“His ultimate masterpiece” is one of the tag-lines that come along with the trailer for Guillermo Del Toro’s latest motion picture, Crimson Peak; A dark and gothic yet romantic tale of love, obsession, and emotional captivity. It’s a story about people being trapped in a time and place, unable to move on from the tragedy that has befallen them, and incapable of finding reconciliation with the past that haunts. That’s all I can really say without spoiling the fun of the mystery. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out how these themes fit into the puzzle. What I will say, though, is that the before-mentioned tagline is anything but just a deceptive marketing trick. The hype is real. This truly is the magnum opus of one of the most visionary directors working in mainstream cinema today.
The movie follows Edith Cushing, the daughter of a self-made american industrialist, who as a child is haunted by the ghost of her deceased mother, telling her to beware of something called Crimson Peak. Edith has no idea what that means, but she can’t seem to let it go. Years later, as a young adult, we find her to be an aspiring fiction writer, trying to get her manuscript sold and published. But no one is interested in reading her ghost stories, and her own social circle constantly taunts her for being unwilling to marry herself away to a wealthy man. In fact, she is so reluctant to fall in love, she even tells them she always liked Marry Shelley, because she died a widow. But when the young and handsome aristocrat Thomas Sharpe visits town on business, he sweeps young Edith off her feet and takes her away to his mansion in England, where dark and sinister secrets hide around every corner. It’s only a matter of time before they reveal themselves.
Del Toro has claimed this to be the most beautiful movie he’s ever made, but even that is an understatement to me. This is not just his best-looking film to date, it’s also one of the most visually stunning pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s the kind of rare experience that demands to be seen on the big screen, preferably in full-blown IMAX. Anything less would be an insult to the filmmakers, who have dedicated every waking minute of their lives the past few years to craft an impeccable construction of lush practical sets, carefully used CGI, and meticulous production design. Every shot and every frame is a work of art all on its own, booming with colourful majesty and richly detailed scenography that takes us far beyond the realm of reality and into a wonderland of gothic beauty. We’re not just talking about technical perfection here, but also a level of aesthetic sophistication that only very few storytellers possess in this day and age. Del Toro is one of them, perhaps the finest we’ve ever had. He understands the language of moving images better than most of his peers, and here he really gets to show that with utmost precision.
Critics often complain that movies like this are more style than substance. I beg to differ. Quite contrary, I think that the style here is the substance in many ways. The lavish costumes, the grandiose set-pieces, the extravagant props. These things are almost as important, if not more, than the plot itself. Because if you strip away all the grandeur and the presentation, what you have is essentially a very simple horror-romance. It’s not so much about where it goes, but how it gets there that matters. The actors often walk a tightrope between pure melodrama and genuine emotion, and this is part of the fun. Everything feels very theatrical and baroque in nature. When characters have something to say it, they’ll say it without any subtlety or restraint. When they cry, they cry with a flaming passion. Sort of like a shakespearian play, if it had a 55 million dollar budget to work with. I suppose that is both the biggest pull and the biggest push of the film. It’s not your typical, post-modern slice-and-dice techno-thriller. It’s not driven by shock and and gore, but by mood and atmosphere. I say that because I’m sure a lot of people in the mainstream audience will be put off by how slow the pace is. The millennial generation is defined by its short attention span, and if you don’t blow something up or kill a person every 10th minute, they are going to check out before act 1 is even over. It’s sad but true, and Crimson Peak is not catering to that mentality.
I guess it really is a movie for people who love movies. It kills me to say that, because it shouldn’t have to be that way. But whether I like it or not, the masses want processed happy meals and sugary mountain dew, not home-cooked steak and fine wine. Del Toro and his creations seem to exist in a different time and place, too old-fashioned for the 21st century moviegoer. Crimson Peak is a tribute to an era of patience, back when people actually had faith in the art of visual poetry and graphic storytelling. It wasn’t just about constant release of exposition, it was about keeping the audience guessing until the very end, craving for more until they would nearly burst because of the tension. It must also be mentioned that this is the type of experience that only gets better with repeated viewings. Each time the meaning of it all becomes clearer and clearer, as it gradually reveals itself to you through tiny visual clues, symbols, pieces of dialogue, and body language – small but crucial informations and gestures that even the most observant critic will not be able see the first time around. It’s just not possible, and therefore it’s also easy to just write off the film as clichéd, nonsensical, and boring. But the truth is that the execution here is flawless, like a jigsaw puzzle waiting for you to solve it. It’s a smart movie for smart people, made with the purpose of making you feel lost in its immersive universe, but ultimately figure out that there is a deeper reality hidden beneath the shimmery facade of it all. It’s been ages since we’ve had something so pure, visceral, and magnetic in its visual narrative, and it certainly is one of the year’s finest movies. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and I hope this review convinced you to see it.